Canada’s AI Experts Head South
U.S. companies recruit its artificial-intelligence scientists The country’s lead is “slipping away right under our nose”
Canada, with a tech industry one-third the size of California’s, has become a leader in the booming market for artificial intelligence. Pioneering technologies developed in Canadian labs can be found in Facebook’s facial-recognition algorithms, used to tag people in images, Photos app, and smartphone voice identification.
Over the past three years, a handful of leading Canadian researchers and professors, superstars whose AI work will underpin everything from selfdriving cars to smart prosthetic limbs, have defected to U.S. tech companies and universities, taking their expertise, and often their students, with them. Canada’s losses could undermine a decade-long effort by the national and provincial governments to leapfrog other countries in artificial intelligence.
University of Toronto computer science professor Geoffrey Hinton spent decades building the techniques now used in image- and speechrecognition systems. He and two of his students joined Google in 2013 when the company bought an imagerecognition startup Hinton co-founded. Nando de Freitas, who taught computer science at the University of British Columbia, developed techniques for data analysis that are now being used by Google’s skunkworks AI division, DeepMind. He joined the company in the U.K. in 2014 and occasionally teaches at Oxford. Ruslan “Russ” Salakhutdinov, also in the computer science department at the University of Toronto, has done groundbreaking work that lets computers identify objects after seeing only a small set of examples, mimicking how young children learn. He’s joining the machinelearning department at Carnegie Mellon University in the spring.
“We had a lead in a field that is potentially going to be very important … and it’s slipping away right under our nose,” says Ajay Agrawal, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
In the mid-2000s the governmentbacked Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (Cifar) in Toronto funded work on a then-obscure and unproven technology, neural networks, which helps computers learn to write their own programs for complex tasks, including image recognition and speech processing. A small group of researchers made several breakthroughs that wound up in a range of commercial and consumer applications. The Google speech-recognition software in millions of Android phones relies on techniques invented by Canadian scientists.
In 2012, Silicon Valley started scouring Canada for top talent, hiring professors, postgrads, and Ph.D.s, and buying startups linked to them. In June, Twitter bought machinelearning company Whetlab, whose founders include two University of Toronto alumni who worked as postdoctoral researchers with Hinton. “With the pull from U.S. companies, we run the risk of losing our best minds,” says Yoshua Bengio, a professor at the University of Montreal and co-director of Cifar’s neural network program. “I think it’s important that people in the [provincial] governments get together and make it attractive to stay here in Canada.” Speaking at a recent AI conference at the University of Toronto, the city’s mayor, John Tory, said, “I see it as a big part of my job and indeed the future of this city to do everything possible to make sure they feel they don’t have to leave town, in fact, they shouldn’t leave town.”
Canadian companies and universities are trying to protect what they helped build. A program at the University of Toronto to develop AI startups launched in 2015. Montreal is home to several AI companies; authorities there will provide tax credits and help navigate immigration rules to ease recruitment of foreign students at the University of Montreal. Maluuba, a Waterloo, Ont., startup that makes technology allowing people to have detailed text-based conversations with computers, hopes to establish informal links with an AI lab at the university and is opening a research office in the city. “I was really excited to find out about Maluuba, because it meant I could stay Canadian,” says Adam Trischler, a research scientist at the company.
At the AI conference in Toronto in early December, Salakhutdinov, who’s leaving for Carnegie Mellon, said a dedicated AI center at a Canadian university could persuade researchers to stay. He noted that Carnegie Mellon’s program has more than 100 Ph.D. researchers. “That’s a huge powerhouse,” he says. The bottom line Canadian companies and universities are starting programs to encourage AI experts to remain in the country.