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The rise of artificial intelligence: Google invests in deep learning in Montreal

Google has solidified Montreal’s newly-attained reputation as an international epicentre for Artificial Intelligence (AI) research by investing $4.5 million in the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, a research lab at the University of Montreal (UdeM). Artificial Intelligence refers to computer systems performing tasks by mimicking human cognition, including visual or speech recognition, and advanced forms of decision making. According to AI expert and UdeM Professor Yoshua Bengio, Montreal is home to the world’s largest concentration of AI researchers, making it an attractive city for many investors and entrepreneurs who see immense potential for capitalization of the new field. 

Google is also planning to open a deep learning and AI research group in the city. The lab will be owned and led by Google, and will work in conjunction with Google Brain, a machine learning research team. 

“[The] Google AI lab in Montreal is going to grow gradually, but for now will stay in the Google Montreal offices,” Professor Bengio wrote in an email to The Tribune.

According to Doina Precup, a professor in the McGill Department of Computer Science, the new AI lab’s upcoming research will be most relevant to Google rather than the AI industry as a whole, such as working to develop technology that will improve Google search queries. 

“Google has certain products that they would like to improve, so the research is internally used towards these products,” Precup said. “These have to do with search […] and things that are mainly related to Google’s issues.”

The expanding AI industry in Montreal has led to the creation of many startup research factories, such as Element AI. Launched by Bengio in Oct. 2016, Element AI works to develop AI that can be used by many businesses for their services. Element AI Program Director Sébastien Provencher believes that the work that is being done in AI today holds great potential. 

“We’re looking at the new frontier […] AI is where it’s happening today, and that’s why it’s exciting,” said Provencher. “Montreal is becoming the place to be in the world for any type of deep learning, machine learning, or AI projects.”

Provencher believes that Google’s investment could also create incentives for many Canadians working in Silicon Valley to return, as running a business in Montreal is much cheaper.

“There’s talent originally in Montreal that might be working in the Valley right now, and we want them to come back,” Provencher said. 

While Google’s lab will help in drawing more investors and business to Montreal, Precup is worried that it may complicate things on the academic scene. 

“From the point of view of academia, […] the difficulty is […] a lot of people who work in [research] have left for the industry and there’s not that many people left to train students,” Precup said. 

Precup is also hopeful that Google’s AI lab will allow for them to share resources with academic labs who may not have access to certain equipment.

McGill PhD candidate in Computer Science Emmanuel Bengio, Professor Yoshua Bengio’s son, is optimistic that Google’s investment will create more opportunities for students after graduation.

“Before, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find a job in AI in Montreal, but I think this just increased the potential of that happening,” Bengio said.  

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