Montreal has identified through the peaceful protests of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, through international Olympic gatherings and expired baseball leagues, but only in recent history has it worn a new garment, sacheying as a global hub for artificial intelligence (AI).
Rich with culture and internationally adored, Montreal has developed as more than a city for artists, transitioning into the new Silicon Valley of AI development. The reputation was earned for one simple reason – Montreal has the highest concentration of independent AI researchers in the world. But it wasn’t always this way. Looking back this city would never have earned such a reputation without the help of key scientific leadership under the wings of academia that eventually captured the attention of key investors and the private sector.
A Decade of Academic AI Development
The early glimmers of artificial intelligence research began in Montreal a decade ago through the Institute of Data Valorization (IVADO), a joint collaboration with three of Montreal’s french universities, Polytechnique, Universite of Montreal and HEC. IVADO’s primary purpose was to bring together the study of analytics, machine learning and management research – a vision realized by Yoshua Bengio. Now the Scientific Director of IVADO, Bengio has been working on deep learning and artificial intelligence since the 80s.
Like much of the AI talent that has come out of Montreal in the last decade, Bengio was made many private offers, but he chose to keep his independence as a researcher. It is because Bengio chose to stay in Montreal and continue his research independently that he was able to attract more talent and grow the AI landscape to what it is today. In this sense he is considered not only the father of deep learning but also the father of AI in Montreal.
“I believe AI is going to be one of, if not the, largest growth areas of the economy over the next few decades. It has been growing very fast in the last few years but I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg…. We can be here in Canada, and Montreal in particular, at the centre of the action if we take the right decisions now.” – Yoshua Bengio to CloudRaker
While IVADO brings together Montreal’s french universities under the leadership of Bengio, the Gazette reports that the University of Montreal and McGill are by far the leading academic institutions for AI development in the city, collectively housing about 150 researchers. McGill Associate Professor in Computer Sciences, Doina Precup, tells the Gazette “We stuck to academia, which helped us build big labs with a lot of graduate students…The training and the research started much before (AI) was popular, since the early 2000s, when people didn’t really care for this type of research.”
With a growing academic army of AI researchers, Canada’s Federal Government pledged $213 million to fund four of Montreal’s universities in September last year. Shortly after Google handed over $4.5 million in funding to another academic endeavor of Bengio’s called the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA). Quebec’s Government also stepped up to the plate organizing a committee in charge of the strategic development of AI in the province. The 12 member “bluechip” committee includes members from investment firms, the academic sector and more.
The academic research into AI has resulted in language recognition applications, self-driving cars, medical applications and more. The innovations led by academic institutions fueled by government funding in Montreal over the past decade, or more, form the world-class hub for artificial intelligence that the city has become today.
Businesses Betting on Montreal’s AI
With a strong academic foundation for AI R&D well underway, Bengio has additionally pursued business interests in Montreal, founding Element AI. The company was launched one year ago to support businesses who want to transition and leverage AI technology. The company recently went on a hiring spree attracting talent from companies like Uber, Amazon, Google and more, reported CBC. The injection of talent came after Element AI raised 135 million dollars from big tech names like Microsoft, Intel and Nvidia; however, they can’t take all the credit. The Star writes that these investments were made possible with the help of Data Collective based out of California. Large investments from well known tech companies into Bengio’s Element AI are attracting additional talent from the private sector into Montreal.
Google recently opened a deep learning and AI lab in its Montreal office. Microsoft is also making AI waves in the city. Spokesperson Lisa Gibson told the Gazette they will double their Montreal AI R&D workforce over the next year. Microsoft also recently acquired Waterloo-based Maluuba, an AI company dedicated to language recognition, planning to house about 80 researchers in their Montreal lab.
“It’s been incredible so far. The work being done in this space is putting Montreal on a pedestal around the world.” – Mohamed Musbah, VP Product Development, Maluuba
Aside from the biggest tech giants in the world (ah hem), there are many more private sector companies popping up in Montreal furthering the private development and application of artificially intelligent technology. Botler AI was formed to facilitate immigration for example. Lyrebird was created to further develop speech synthesis and repetition. There are so many businesses working within this new global AI hub that Montreal International has a profile page dedicated to Montreal’s artificial intelligence. The page is designed to attract investors but lists other companies working on AI in Montreal like Nuance, Imagia, Fuzzy.AI, Fluent.AI and Automat.
So what is driving more and more business development in the AI sector in Montreal? Financial times reporter Denise Deveau, quotes Nagraj Kashyap from Microsoft saying “Clearly it’s a place where everybody wants to be if we want to tap into that talent.”
The Future of AI in Montreal
With all of the investment money sitting in the hands of the city’s academic and private AI sectors, everyone is looking to Montreal to live up to its name as a world-class center for advanced AI research. Though with so much activity already underway, including IVADO, MILO, Element AI, artificial intelligence startups, AI hackathons and more, the scene is only going to grow exponentially – perpetuating Montreal’s already blossoming AI reputation.
Feature Image: Unsplash/Andrew Welch