The next time you pull out your smartphone and ask Siri or Google for advice, or chat with a bot online, take pride in knowing that some of the theoretical foundation for that technology was brought to life here in Canada. Indeed, as far back as the early 1980s, key organizations such as the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research embarked on groundbreaking work in neural networks and machine learning. Academic pioneers such as Geoffrey Hinton (now a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and an advisor to Google, among others), the University of Montreal's Yoshua Bengio and the University of Alberta's Rich Sutton produced critical research that helped fuel Canada's rise to prominence as a global leader in artificial intelligence (AI). Stephen Piron, co-CEO of Dessa, praises the federal government's efforts at cutting immigration processing timelines for highly skilled foreign workers. Canada now houses three major AI clusters – in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton – that form the backbone of the country's machine-learning ecosystem and support homegrown AI startups.
The first genuinely impressive AI assistant may well have a Canadian accent. Facebook announced today that it is tapping into Canada's impressive supply of artificial-intelligence talent and expertise by creating a major AI research center in Montreal. Several big recent advances in AI can be traced back to Canadian research labs, and Facebook is hoping that the new lab may help it take advantage of whatever comes next. The new center will focus, in particular, on an area of AI known as reinforcement learning (see "10 Breakthrough Technologies 2017: Reinforcement Learning"). The center will seek to apply this and other novel approaches to language, with the aim of producing more coherent and useful virtual assistants, says Yann LeCun, director of AI research at Facebook.
Yann LeCun is among those bringing a new level of artificial intelligence to popular internet services from the likes of Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. As the head of AI research at Facebook, LeCun oversees the creation of vast "neural networks" that can recognize photos and respond to everyday human language. And similar work is driving speech recognition on Google's Android phones, instant language translation on Microsoft's Skype service, and so many other online tools that can "learn" over time. Using vast networks of computer processors, these systems approximate the networks of neurons inside the human brain, and in some ways, they can outperform humans themselves. This week in the scientific journal Nature, LeCun--also a professor of computer science at New York University--details the current state of this "deep learning" technology in a paper penned alongside the two other academics most responsible for this movement: University of Toronto professor Geoff Hinton, who's now at Google, and the University of Montreal's Yoshua Bengio.
It all started at a small academic get-together in Whistler, British Columbia. The topic was speech recognition, and whether a new and unproven approach to machine intelligence--something called deep learning--could help computers more effectively identify the spoken word. Microsoft funded the mini-conference, held just before Christmas 2009, and two of its researchers invited the world's preeminent deep learning expert, the University of Toronto's Geoff Hinton, to give a speech. Hinton's idea was that machine learning models could work a lot like neurons in the human brain. He wanted to build "neural networks" that could gradually assemble an understanding of spoken words as more and more of them arrived.
The four founders, two of whom have resigned their professorships to devote their full attention to TwentyBN, met each other during studies at the University of Bielefeld in Germany. Each of the founders has over 15 years of experience in machine learning and the relatively young deep learning discipline. Prof. Dr. Roland Memisevic, Chief Scientist, received his doctorate in Toronto, studying with Geoffrey Hinton, one of the founding fathers of deep learning. Prior to co-founding Twenty Billion Neurons, Memisevic was a member of the faculty at the renowned Machine Learning Institute of the University of Montréal led by Yoshua Bengio. The institute counts Google, Facebook, and IBM amongst its most active donors.