National Post

Montreal’s frosty image melting




In a sun-lit lecture space at École Polytechni­que, Joelle Pineau explained how a machine can create a recipe from a photo of a tourtière.

It’s not easy as pie, but rather the fruit of 12 months of experiment­ation at Facebook’s new artificial intelligen­ce lab, which she heads up in Montreal.

“I would like the robot that goes with it and then makes the recipe,” joked Pineau, an associate professor at McGill University.

Facebook’s lab has already expanded to 20 specialist­s from four since its launch in September 2017, with plans to move to a bigger facility come January.

Microsoft Corp. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. have both launched Montreal-based AI labs in the past two years, and aim to hire scores more researcher­s in the next year or so.

It’s not just Montreal’s AI sector that’s booming. A mix of cutting-edge tech clusters, real-estate growth and old mainstays, like tourism and shipping, are transformi­ng the city into an economic hot spot after decades of battling a frosty business image.

Regional gross domestic product grew 3.5 per cent in 2017, according to Statistics Canada, outpacing Toronto and Vancouver as Montreal enjoyed its biggest growth spurt in more than 10 years. Unemployme­nt has hovered at around six per cent for the past 12 months, remaining near alltime lows.

Meanwhile, foreign direct investment surpassed $2 billion in 2017, a new record that marks a 50-per-cent increase over 2016 and a 100-per-cent jump from 2015.

“There’s definitely a buzz around Montreal, especially the high-tech sectors,” said Christian Bernard, chief economist with Montreal Internatio­nal, an economic developmen­t agency.

Up to 75 per cent of foreign direct investment last year went toward high-tech sectors, such as gaming, visual effects and aerospace, as well as life sciences and health technology, he said.

“The technology is very broad, and the talent can move around from one area to another, one

niche applicatio­n to another,” said Université de Montréal computer scientist and deep-learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio, who serves as scientific director of the new Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms.

Bengio cited as a key catalyst French gaming company Ubisoft Entertainm­ent SA, which opened a small office in Montreal in 1997 and now employs 3,500 workers.

Cash has been pouring into Montreal from public and private institutio­ns, including more than $300 million over the next five years, from the federal and provincial government­s to bankroll big data research at Montreal universiti­es and foster a regional AI “super-cluster.”

Brad Henderson, chief executive of Sotheby’s Internatio­nal Realty Canada, said mortgage stress tests and higher interest rates haven’t dampened Montreal’s real-estate market, which he called the healthiest in Canada.

The city’s $1 million-plus realestate sales increased 19 per cent year-over-year in July and August, and they’re poised “to set new records to the end of 2018,” according to a Sotheby’s report in September.

Quebec’s political situation has calmed investor fears, he added.

“Montreal’s always kind of had a bit of a political overhang,” Henderson said, “but the concerns about separatism have largely dissipated and that, in our opinion, has contribute­d to the steady growth that we’ve seen.”

Montreal’s port continues to underpin the regional economy, as the year-old free-trade deal between Canada and the European Union boosts container shipping and prompts a hiring spree at the docks, according to port officials.

Container imports increased 7.8 per cent to nearly 4.33 million tonnes in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period in 2017, with the bulk of that traffic coming from Europe.

Tourism is also on the rise, with

Trudeau Internatio­nal Airport welcoming more than 11 million foreign passengers in the first eight months of 2018 for a 6.9-percent year-over-year gain, according to Tourisme Montréal.

However, the same features Montrealer­s cite as strengths can detract from the city’s sheen as well.

In 2016, median household incomes in Montreal climbed more quickly than in many metropolit­an areas, but they remained among the lowest of any major city in Canada at $61,790, according to StatCan figures.

High employment points to a severe thirst for a bigger talent pool, said Montreal Board of Trade president Michel Leblanc.

Many parts of the province are now “beyond full employment,” with a demand for more qualified workers in sectors including hospitalit­y, transporta­tion and the tech scene, Leblanc said.

“We need to have more immigrants,” he said, one day before Quebecers voted the Coalition Avenir Québec to power on Oct. 1, whose leader François Legault has pledged to reduce immigratio­n by 20 per cent.

One-third of Quebec’s workforce will have to be replaced in the next 10 years as the population ages, said Mia Homsy, director of the Institut du Québec, a public policy think-tank.

“It’s already starting to affect investment­s and production, with a direct impact on GDP,” she said.

Population growth in the Montreal census metropolit­an area has been relatively slow, rising 11 per cent to 4.1 million residents between 2007 and 2017, according to StatCan. The rate lags well behind Canada’s five other biggest urban areas.

Despite its rapid growth, Montreal’s affordabil­ity is better than many of the other 10 biggest cities on the continent, said Loic Jegousse, head of cyber and IT risk with a BNP Paribas team that launched in Montreal last May.

“I myself have two teenage daughters. I used to live in Toronto, and I thought it would be wise to come to Montreal so they can actually afford a home when they grow up,” he said.

“Montreal was very sleepy for a long, long time, but now it is going through a renaissanc­e.”

 ?? GRAHAM HUGHES / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES ?? Computer scientist Yoshua Bengio, scientific director of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, says Montreal technology and talent is broad and can work across different niche sectors.
GRAHAM HUGHES / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Computer scientist Yoshua Bengio, scientific director of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, says Montreal technology and talent is broad and can work across different niche sectors.

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