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.
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.
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.
Thirty years ago, Yann LeCun pioneered the use of a particular form of machine learning, called the convolutional neural network, or CNN, while at the University of Toronto. That approach, moving a filter over a set of pixels to detect patterns in images, showed promise in cracking problems such as getting the computer to recognize hand-written digits with minimal human guidance. Years later, LeCun, then at NYU, launched a "conspiracy," as he has termed it, to bring machine learning back into the limelight after a long winter for the discipline. The key was LeCun's CNN, which had continued to develop in sophistication to the point where it could produce results in computer vision that stunned the field. The new breakthroughs with CNNs, along with innovations by peers such as Yoshua Bengio, of Montreal's MILA group for machine learning, and Geoffrey Hinton of Google Brain, succeeded in creating a new springtime for AI research, in the form of deep learning.
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