Mi­crosoft buys into Canada’s AI re­search via Malu­uba

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - REPORT ON BUSINESS WEEKEND - SHANE DINGMAN TECH­NOL­OGY RE­PORTER

Co-founders say ac­cel­er­at­ing ad­vances of com­pany based in Water­loo, Ont., meant ac­cess to much greater re­sources was needed

Mi­crosoft Corp. is buy­ing into Canada’s ar­ti­fi­cial-in­tel­li­gence re­search com­mu­nity with a deal to pur­chase Malu­uba, a deeplearn­ing and AI-tech­nol­ogy startup based in Water­loo, Ont., and Mon­treal.

The com­pany, founded in 2011 by two Univer­sity of Water­loo grads, fo­cuses on teach­ing ma­chines to read like a hu­man brain – a mas­sive com­puter sci­ence chal­lenge that has be­dev­illed re­searchers for decades. Early on, the com­pany also de­vel­oped lan­guage-recog­ni­tion soft­ware for voice assistants in smart­phones and cars.

The com­pany raised $9-mil­lion in ven­ture fund­ing in Jan­uary, 2016, but nei­ther com­pany re­leased de­tails Fri­day about the sale price. The com­pany moved quickly to be­gin in­te­grat­ing the 50 cur­rent em­ploy­ees spread be­tween Mon­treal and Water­loo, Ont. A Mi­crosoft spokesper­son is­sued a state­ment that said “most, if not all, em­ploy­ees” are ex­pected to stay with Malu­uba through the tran­si­tion.

In the state­ment an­nounc­ing the ac­qui­si­tion, Malu­uba co­founders Sam Pa­su­palak and Ka­heer Sule­man said the ra­tio­nale for sell­ing was to bol­ster re­sources.

“Early re­search achieve­ments [in ma­chine-read­ing com­pre­hen­sion, mem­ory, com­mon­sense rea­son­ing] ac­cel­er­ated our need to scale our team rapidly; it was ap­par­ent that we needed to bol­ster our work with sig­nif­i­cant re­sources to ad­vance to­wards solv­ing ar­ti­fi­cial gen­eral in­tel­li­gence.”

Mi­crosoft also an­nounced Fri­day that Yoshua Ben­gio – one of the lead­ing lights on deep learn­ing as well as the head of the Univer­sity of Mon­treal’s In­sti­tute for Learn­ing Al­go­rithms – would be­come an ad­viser to the com­pany’s Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence and Re­search Group, much as he had been ad­vis­ing Malu­uba.

Malu­uba makes much of its re­search avail­able to other AI de­vel­op­ers. In Novem­ber and De­cem­ber, it re­leased mas­sive datasets that as­sist with ques- tion-and-an­swer sce­nar­ios as well as a prod­uct that helps ma­chines re­mem­ber and con­tex­tu­al­ize a string of di­a­logue. Just a month ago it part­nered with McGill Univer­sity’s Rea­son­ing and Learn­ing Lab, a col­lab­o­ra­tion that re­ceived an NSERC En­gage grant from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Cana­dian ma­chine-learn­ing re­searchers have been hot prop­er­ties as the world’s big­gest com­pa­nies seek to make de­vices and soft­ware more in­tel­li­gent. In 2013, Google hired deep learn­ing and neural net­work pioneer Ge­of­frey Hin­ton from the Univer­sity of Toronto. For­mer Univer­sity of Toronto ma­chine-learn­ing pro­fes­sor Rus­lan Salakhut­di­nov (more re­cently of Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity) was hired in Oc­to­ber by Ap­ple to help it im­prove its Siri voice as­sis­tant.

JAMES MAC­DON­ALD/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Em­ploy­ees work at Malu­uba’s of­fices in Water­loo, Ont. The com­pany was founded in 2011 by two grad stu­dents.

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