Canada’s AI in­flu­ence ce­mented as Face­book hires two Mon­treal ex­perts

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - NEWS - SEAN SILCOFF

Two of Canada’s top ar­ti­fi­cial­in­tel­li­gence ex­perts are join­ing Face­book Inc., the lat­est in a string of renowned Cana­dian aca­demics in the hot tech­nol­ogy field to go to work for Sil­i­con Val­ley gi­ants.

Joëlle Pineau, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of com­puter science at McGill Uni­ver­sity and co-di­rec­tor of its Rea­son­ing and Learn­ing Lab, will lead a new Mon­treal-based AI lab for the In­ter­net gi­ant, which em­ploys 105 re­searchers at sim­i­lar labs in Paris, New York and in Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Join­ing her is Pas­cal Vin­cent, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Mon­treal’s de­part­ment of com­puter science and op­er­a­tions re­search. The lab will even­tu­ally em­ploy 20 to 30 re­searchers and es­tab­lish Face­book’s first re­search pres­ence in Canada.

Both are con­sid­ered lead­ing aca­demics in the broader field of ma­chine learn­ing, where Canada has a strong­hold thanks largely to three AI pioneers – Ge­off Hin­ton, Yoshua Ben­gio and Rich Sut­ton – each of whom have pre­vi­ously cho­sen post­ings in Canada over op­por­tu­ni­ties in the United States. They es­tab­lished Canada’s lead­er­ship in an area of com­put­ing once dis­missed as the “lu­natic fringe” un­til break­throughs this decade caught the at­ten­tion of Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Dr. Pineau is an expert in “re­in­force­ment learn­ing,” whereby machines are taught to make un­su­per­vised de­ci­sions in pur­suit of set goals. She also builds ro­bots and is de­vel­op­ing a smart wheel­chair. Dr. Vin­cent’s ex­per­tise is in “neu­ral net­works,” where machines are taught to func­tion sim­i­lar to hu­man brains as they process in­for­ma­tion and make de­ci­sions. He co-founded the Mon­treal In­sti­tute for Learn­ing Al­go­rithms with Dr. Ben­gio.

The move fur­ther ce­ments Canada’s im­por­tance in the ex­plod­ing field of AI, where de­mand for tal­ent far ex­ceeds sup­ply. Many aca­demics have joined U.S. gi­ants on their own terms, stay­ing put to build labs in their home­towns rather than move south, and re­tain­ing their aca­demic af­fil­i­a­tions. They in­clude Uni­ver­sity of Toronto pro­fes­sor Raquel Ur­ta­sun, an expert in driver­less-car tech­nol­ogy, who is lead­ing a Toronto lab for Uber Tech­nolo­gies, and Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta pro­fes­sor Dr. Sut­ton, who is colead­ing a lab in Edmonton for Deep­Mind Tech­nolo­gies, owned by Google par­ent Al­pha­bet Inc. Both Dr. Pineau and Dr. Vin­cent will also stay em­ployed by their uni­ver­si­ties.

They fol­low U of T’s Prof. Hin­ton – re­garded as the “god­fa­ther of deep learn­ing” – who works for Google in Toronto, and Uni­ver­sity of Sher­brooke’s Hugo Larochelle, also em­ployed by Google.

But the Sil­i­con Val­ley brain-grab is also height­en­ing con­cerns Canada’s eco­nomic in­ter­ests are be­ing pushed aside as global gi­ants seek dom­i­nance in a field ex­pected to have broad ef­fects on science, in­no­va­tion and ev­ery­day life. AI al­ready pow­ers the fea­tures that sug­gest songs, movies and books on pop­u­lar Web ser­vices, per­sonal as­sis­tants in smart­phones and fa­cial-recog­ni­tion soft­ware in Ap­ple’s new iPhone X. “Face­book to­day could ba­si­cally not func­tion” with­out AI, said Yann LeCun, di­rec­tor of Face­book AI Re­search.

In re­sponse, Ot­tawa, On­tario and Que­bec have com­mit­ted hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to fund AI re­search and in­sti­tutes in Canada to en­sure the coun­try re­mains a draw for AI tal­ent. Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau is sched­uled to speak at the for­mal an­nounce­ment by Face­book on Fri­day.

“Clearly [Face­book’s lab] will in­crease Canada’s vis­i­bil­ity as a ma­jor AI player,” said Dr. Ben­gio, who has turned down U.S. of­fers and in­stead co-founded a hot Mon­treal startup. “The neg­a­tive, ob­vi­ously, is that we’re los­ing [some] of the few pro­fes­sors in Canada in the field. It’s very im­por­tant to have enough of these peo­ple be­cause the econ­omy and the in­no­va­tion and the growth re­quire that we train more peo­ple with those skills.”

Bren­dan Frey, a top AI aca­demic at U of T who leads AI startup Deep Ge­nomics, said, “I per­son­ally don’t be­lieve that a for­eign com­pany set­ting up a re­search lab in Canada and em­ploy­ing [lo­cal ex­perts] should be con­sid­ered as a suc­cess for Canada” on its own. Rather, he said, a suc­cess­ful ecosys­tem would also in­clude pros­per­ous home­grown AI firms that draw top tal­ent.

“Es­sen­tially the ques­tion is: How much is that com­pany gen­er­at­ing for Canada?” Dr. Frey said. “Ob­vi­ously if you em­ploy 20 re­searchers that’s great, they’ll buy gro­ceries and pay taxes in Canada. But that’s quite dif­fer­ent than a com­pany pay­ing large por­tions of its to­tal taxes in Canada and em­ploy­ing tens of thou­sands of peo­ple here.”

Dr. Pineau brushed aside some of the con­cerns, say­ing for the last decade “I’ve watched as all of my mas­ters and PhD stu­dents left Canada” to work. “Now we’re of­fer­ing great re­search op­tions [here] … that is a re­ally big gain for Canada.”

Her lab will do both fun­da­men­tal re­search and help de­velop prod­ucts and fea­tures for Face­book, such as per­sonal as­sis­tants, trans­la­tion, im­age recog­ni­tion and vir­tual agents that can have proper con­ver­sa­tions with hu­mans.

She added she was ready for a change af­ter 12 years at McGill and warmed to the idea of work­ing for Face­book be­cause the com­pany gives its AI re­searchers “a tremen­dous amount of au­ton­omy” and is com­mit­ted “to do­ing open science” and col­lab­o­rat­ing with her uni­ver­sity.

Face­book is also pro­vid­ing more than $7-mil­lion to fund work by stu­dents of Dr. Pineau and Dr. Vin­cent and will un­der­write the cre­ation of a Cana­dian re­search chair.

Dr. Pineau said she will ini­tially spend about half her time on McGill ac­tiv­i­ties and con­tinue to sup­port her grad­u­ate stu­dents, but will stop teach­ing in the win­ter term and re­duce her McGil­lo­ri­ented work next year.

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