AI brains wanted
Geoff Hinton, Yoshua Bengio and Richard Sutton may not be household names, but in the world of artificial intelligence these Canadian researchers are global superstars. Ensuring these and other coveted AI researchers call Canada home has become a top priority for governments, academia and industry.
Enter the Vector Institute (VI), a bold play by the University of Toronto and an impressive group of AI companies tasked with producing, retaining and attracting the top talent needed to drive the commercialization and adoption of AI.
Launched March 30, VI has already attracted nearly $100 million in public funding and close to $90 million more from 34 companies eager to make Canada a global AI powerhouse in deep and machine learning.
“We wanted to create a magnet for talent and create companies around it doing and using artificial intelligence … Government (federal, provincial, municipal), universities, researchers and venture capital are all aligned to seize the opportunity,” says Jordan Jacobs, co-CEO & co-founder at Layer 6 AI, a Toronto-based start-up developing deep learning products for financial institutions, e-commerce and media.
Jacobs launched Layer 6 AI less than a year ago with U of T graduates who trained under the British-born Hinton, considered the godfather of deep learning. Jacobs and others recognized that the shortage of AI expertise, particularly in niche areas, was threatening Canada’s competitive leadership in the field. Skyrocketing salaries were favouring large, deep-pocketed firms like Google and Facebook, even luring Hinton away to Google although he splits his time between the tech giant and the U of T and is one of VI’s founding scientists.
The demand for talent is enormous; Canada alone needs up to 5,000 AI people but only produces about 500 a year. “We’ll focus on deep and machine learning and bring in graduates and hopefully leap ahead of the others,” says Jacobs.
The federal government is contributing $125-million to establish a Pan-Canadian AI strategy to boost the fortunes of AI clusters in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton. The strategy will be administered by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which has made pioneering contributions to the field through its Learning in Machines and Brains program.
The Quebec and Ontario governments have also sweetened the pot, injecting $100 million and $50 million respectively into AI research at the University of Montreal, McGill University and U of T. Both Quebec and Ontario are also angling to be included in another federal program offering $950 million to establish a handful of so-called superclusters. AI is considered a shoe-in for funding.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been a vocal champion of AI. Speaking in Brampton, Ontario the day VI was officially launched, he compared the field’s importance with the advent of electricity and the microprocessor as he stressed the risk of not seizing on this opportunity.
“We can either be a part of (AI), help steer its direction … or we can watch other countries step in,” said Trudeau. “They’ll happily hire our best students and hardest workers and why wouldn’t they? We are home to some of the world’s top talent when it comes to artificial intelligence and we can’t afford to lose that competitive advantage and all the good jobs that come along with it.”
Private investors are also getting into the game. Element AI, a recent start-up co-founded by deep learning guru Yoshua Bengio — the French-born director of the University of Montreal’s Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms — recently raised $135 million from a group of venture capital and high-tech companies including Intel Capital, Microsoft Ventures and several global sovereign wealth firms.
While VI can’t match the salaries paid by corporate heavyweights, it does offer researchers and graduate students the flexibility to pursue a mix of basic and corporate research. VI is even establishing an office of industry relations to link researchers to government and industrial datasets and potential collaborators.
“This hybrid has been successful in the people we’ve won in the talent wars with other universities, pairing machine learning researchers with coders which leads to commercial opportunities,” says Jacobs. “There’s greater money elsewhere — China is spending billions and Open AI (a San Francisco-based non-profit AI research company associated with business magnate Elon Musk) has $1 billion in commitments. But Canadian money is substantial and we punch above our weight.”