Montreal, the Artificial Intelligence metropolis

NIPS (Neural Information Processing Systems) is the world’s largest convention dedicated to Artificial Intelligence. It took place in Montréal early in December. The capital of Quebec has been attracting some of the world’s top talent for two years. Indeed the convention is the result of a genuine collaboration between the government, private enterprises, and the university sector. Actually, the Canadian city has attracted investment of nearly €230 million. Montreal is becoming the world’s second-largest artificial intelligence hub thanks to :

  • 300 specialist researchers engaged at McGill University and the University of Montreal (both of which are in the world’s top 100 universities).
  • nearly 11,000 students enrolled in programs that include IA or data processing
  • and over 90,000 jobs created.

An international boom

The city has always managed to attract talent from Europe, and from France in particular. It is a favored destination for companies like Thales and Havas, who have established their research laboratories there. In addition, it has attracted all the big names in the field of Big Data: Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Samsung and, most recently, Microsoft, which bought Maluuba, a Quebec-based startup.

It’s easy to believe Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft, in his statement that: “Microsoft is excited to engage with faculties, students and the broader tech community in Montreal, which is becoming a global hub for AI research and innovation.”

So what are the reasons behind this success? And how can other cities be inspired by it?

One name seems to stand from all others: Yoshua Bengio. The computer science professor is a globally-renowned authority in the field of Artificial Intelligence and a pioneer of deep learning. Professor Bengio has worked with luminaries such as Yann Le Cun (Facebook) and Geoffrey Hilton (Google). He is also one of the three authors of the leading reference on the topic of deep learning. The book was released in 2016 and wrote together with Ian Goodfellow and Aaron Courville. And it has become bedside reading for Elon Musk, Tesla’s iconic chief executive.

Numerous other renowned researchers are also based in the Montréal ecosystem. And it is they who have enabled the development of incubators that attract both investment and new projects. Techstars Montréal AI, Foundefuel, Centech, NextAI and TendemLaunch are just some of the cutting-edge pioneers where project for the future are created.

A business that deploys AI to support other businesses

As such, Element AI was co-founded in Quebec in 2013 by Yoshua Bengio and Jean-François Gagné. It now employs over 300 people in five cities worldwide. The company is already considered to be a major player following its record, $102-million funding round. Its research into AI is crucial to help businesses become more productive, more agile, and more secure.

Investment now follows talent, and not the other way round.”

This quotation, from Hubert Bolduc, President of Montréal International, perfectly explains the phenomenon. However, people’s roots and their love for their country are also powerful forces, as confirmed by Yoshua Bengio, who arrived in Montréal at the age of 12: “The changes brought about by artificial intelligence will have social costs, especially in terms of employment. It is therefore essential to ensure that the wealth created by AI does not accumulate in a single location, such as China or Silicon Valley, and that it benefits a much wider section of the public instead.”*(interview with Usine Digitale).

IA across every industry sector

AI products are designed for banking, insurance and healthcare industries. They help speed up decision making in complex environments and to make it flow more smoothly. The speed is one of many benefits promised by Artificial Intelligence. As well, agility is an essential component in the success of research institutions. This is undoubtedly what makes Montréal such an exceptional city. “With such a high concentration of AI experts, it’s a 10 minute drive or a 10 second walk to exchange ideas,” explains Alexandre Le Bouthillier, who has a PhD from UofM. He is also the co-founder of Planora and Imagia, a company that uses AI to combat cancer. As a business angel, he is also involved in the Creative Destruction Lab. With this incubator, he focuses on mentoring startups that specialize in the field.

The economic imperative of enhancing a region’s attractiveness

It remains the case that people are what makes the difference, including in the field of artificial intelligence. The human element, social conditions, and ease of collaboration among all stakeholders (including the funders), are the top priority of employees, students and researchers. Building a better world means starting by bringing people together with a lifestyle and a social model that allows them to flourish.

To read: Quayside : When Google creates its first Smart City in Toronto