Monday, July 23, 2018

Montreal is Becoming the "Silicon Valley" of Artificial Intelligence

          By Brian Orlotti

Montreal is poised to become the next Silicon Valley owing to its abundance of artificial intelligence (AI) researchers, academics, collaborative culture, ready access to capital and social awareness. Even better, Toronto is close behind in those same areas.

As outlined in the July 20th, 2018 AITrends post, "With its Academics, Culture of Collaboration, Access to Capital, Concern with Social Impact, Montreal Poised to be AI Startup Hotbed," Montreal’s AI tech boom has its origins in the Canadian government’s commitment to funding AI research over the past 25 years.

Canada has supported AI pioneers like Yoshua Bengio (University of Montreal and Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA)), Yann LeCun (VP and Chief AI Scientist, Facebook) and Geoff Hinton (who works out of the University of Toronto Vector Institute and serves as Google VP and Engineering Fellow) and is now reaping the benefits of this patronage. These researchers have in turn attracted many foreign students and capital and a surge of Canadian and foreign-backed AI research labs.

The many AI research labs with connections in Montreal and Toronto include:
  • The Toronto ON based Borealis AI Center, which just opened a second office in Vancouver.
  • Element.AI, which "translates cutting-edge AI research into customizable, scalable and human-centric AI products," and has offices in Montreal, Toronto and London UK. Element.AI has received funding through Chinese based conglomerate Tencent Holdings and Silicon Valley CA based Intel.
  • The Toronto ON based Google Brain, located at the University of Toronto (UofT) Vector Institute.
  • The Toronto ON based IBM Innovation Space for Entrepreneurs and Startups (Part of a $54Mln CDN program developed in partnership with the Ontario Centres of Excellence and the Government of Ontario to boost innovation in healthcare, natural resources and financial services).

Sunlife, Adobe, LG and TD Canada Trust are also involved in this area.

Companies pursuing AI research and commercialization are attracted to access to top talent drawn from Montreal’s universities, particularly McGill University and the Université de Montréal (UdeM).

The UdeM is home to the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA), one of the world’s largest deep learning labs.

Facebook’s new AI lab, the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) centre, will be led by McGill University professor Joelle Pineau, a member of MILA. AI scientists and engineers will be employed in a wide range of projects, with a focus on reinforcement learning and dialog systems.

The Canadian government recently reaffirmed its commitment to AI by allocating $80Mln CDN over the near five years to fuel its growth, while MILA itself has been granted $44Mln CDN to support its work.

The ability of Montreal’s universities and startups to attract capital from tech giants and investors has also helped cement its position.

The ability of Montreal-based incubator Element AI to raise $102Mln CDN in a Series A round of investment in June 2017 was a tipping point.

The round was led by Data Collective, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm which backs entrepreneurs applying deep learning technologies to transform large industries, and whose partners include Microsoft Ventures and NVIDIA.

The Series A round came six months after Element AI announced a seed round from Microsoft Ventures (for an undisclosed amount) and eight months after the company launched.

Montreal’s AI sector has also attracted investments from those concerned with the social impact and risks of AI.

In July 2017, the San Francisco-based Open Philanthropy Project (OPP) awarded $2.4Mln CDN to MILA to support “technical research on potential risks from advanced AI.” The OPP’s two primary aims are to increase high-quality research on the safety of AI, and to increase the public’s knowledge of machine learning and AI’s potential risks.

Montreal and Toronto are also benefiting from a Canadian immigration strategy aligned with the nation’s AI ambitions.

Canada launched a fast-track visa program for high-skilled workers in the summer of 2017. Today, foreign students make up 20 percent of all students at Canadian universities compared with less than five percent in the US, according to a recent account in Politico written by two University of Toronto professors, Richard Florida and Joshua Gans.

Canadian immigration law also makes it easier for foreign students to remain in Canada after they graduate.

Canada’s tech sector is reaping the benefits of an increasingly hostile and xenophobic United States.

Since the election of Donald Trump as US president in November 2016, applications to Canadian universities have spiked upward. International student applications jumped 70 percent in the fall of 2017 compared to the previous year; applications to McGill jumped 30 percent; and those to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver increased by 25 percent, according to the study’s authors.

As the United States wages internal persecution and terror and external economic war against its own allies, Canada occupies a unique position. By embracing openness and leveraging an influx of foreign talent and capital, our nation may have a hedge against the economic onslaught being unleashed by its Southern neighbour.

Canada may well be a bright candle in the growing global darkness.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

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