Once limited to the realm of fiction, AI is now the technology shaping our world more than ever before. Montreal is at the center of this movement, with some saying it could become the Silicon Valley of AI. This may come as a surprise with all the other tech research and startup hubs out there. Why not New York, London, Boston, or even Silicon Valley? What does Montreal have that they don’t? As it turns out, the largest concentration of independent AI researchers in the world.

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At the center of this group of researchers is the Institute of Data Valorization (IVADO), which is a collaboration between the universities Polytechnique, Université de Montréal, and HEC.

About 10 years ago, IVADO recognized the need for a new kind of data scientist, one who combined the disciplines of management research, analytics, and machine learning. As IVADO’s director of partnerships, Valérie Bécaert, puts it, it’s “not just using what is called automatic learning to give intelligence to the data, but to automate complex decisions with these data.” These complex decisions she’s referring to are what are behind automation in cars, translation (soon to be dialogue), pharmaceutical research, and many more applications.

The force driving Montreal’s advantage in data science is IVADO’s scientific director Yoshua Bengio. He is considered one of the pioneers of “deep learning”, an approach to AI that he, and very few others, have been working on since the ‘80s. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that this unpopular method began to be the hottest area in AI research. But most of the serious funding came from big tech companies, who drew nearly all of the talent out of the universities and into their private research groups.

Bengio, however, has brushed off the offers to go private. Instead he has focused on attracting and developing an independent group in Montreal, which is now the biggest in the world.

While the private research groups have been able to come out with powerful applications of AI, Yoshua has said “I’m hoping that we can provide services that maybe don’t have any commercial value but are going to be useful to people."

He’s not only looking to surpass human expertise, but also distribute it. Even if a machine can’t beat the top 1% of doctors at identifying cancer, that’s still better than most doctors in the world.

This vision for making an impact with AI is what’s helped draw much of the talent to Montreal rather than big tech. This last fall, the Canadian government gave IVADO $93 million and seven years to make Montreal “an internationally renowned center for artificial intelligence.” The grant from the Canadian government will tip the scales even more in Montreal’s favour.

Another advantage of Montreal's is its cluster of academic institutions, rivalled only by Boston. AI will mean deep, underlying shifts in the computing of a given industry and researchers need close access to domain experts to develop it properly. For instance, those working on AI applications in medicine benefit greatly from having some of the top health science experts right next door

This also applies to the development of ethics around AI. Humanitarian design needs to happen from the bottom up, so a concentration of authorities in the social sciences makes a well-rounded academic foundation needed for an AI ecosystem.

Connecting with Business, too

Being independent doesn’t mean ignoring business, the scientists do want their discoveries to be used. Bengio described IVADO as a “kernel”, a seed that would grow to connect and develop all the parts of an AI ecosystem. It’s come to act as an “interface” between researchers, as well as industry and government.

Element AI is a formalization of IVADO’s relationship with the business world. It is the result of a partnership between entrepreneurs Jean-François Gagné and Nicolas Chapados, Yoshua Bengio and investor Jean-Sébastien Cournoyer of Real Ventures, Montreal’s main venture capital firm. While IVADO was working with many industry players already, Element AI is an incubator for AI researchers with an entrepreneurial spirit to tackle data problems that businesses bring to them.

As it turns out, Montreal has a number of large global companies ready to apply these tools and are happy to have the close access: CAE, AirCanada, Merck Pharmaceuticals, and Pratt & Whitney, to name a few. There’s also an expectation of attracting big tech to Montreal. Already, Microsoft has invested in Element AI and Google has set up a new outpost for AI research in Montreal.

Bengio says “there's a whole slew of companies exploring potential uses in commerce, in video games, in transportation, logistics, finance, banking, resources, education, health, almost anything. I mean name it; if there's data, we can probably do something."

What's it gonna take?

There’s no exact threshold for becoming the Silicon Valley of AI, and it’s doubtful whether that is even possible in today’s connected, global economy. But, Montreal does seem to have a lot of the right pieces coming into place.

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Both Bengio and Bécaert are careful to hedge expectations, though they still let slip how big they think it could be. Bengio is unmistakably optimistic about the potential: “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.”

Bécaert spoke of the stars aligning at this moment in time for Montreal to take its place as the “Silicon Valley of AI”. Both the Quebec and Canadian governments are doing much more than providing funding; they’ve provided open access to national institutions like the health care system and municipal transportation systems. The relatively liberal climate is also bringing a lot of other academics to Canada.

If not the Silicon Valley of AI, Montreal is definitely setting an example for how independent, collaborative and open research are a great recipe for success.


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