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Canadian brain-grab intensifies as Facebook hires two AI experts for new Montreal lab

Two of Canada’s top artificial intelligence experts, Pascal Vincent and Joelle Pineau, are joining Facebook.

Two of Canada's top artificial intelligence experts are joining Facebook Inc., the latest in a string of renowned Canadian academics in the hot technology field to go to work for Silicon Valley giants.

Joelle Pineau, associate professor of computer science at McGill University and co-director of its Reasoning and Learning Lab, will lead a new Montreal-based AI lab for the Internet giant, which employs 105 researchers at similar labs in Paris, New York and Silicon Valley.

Joining her is Pascal Vincent, associate professor in University of Montreal's department of computer science and operations research. The lab will eventually employ 20 to 30 researchers and establish Facebook's first research presence in Canada.

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Both are considered leading academics in the broader field of machine learning, where Canada has a stronghold thanks largely to three AI pioneers – Geoff Hinton, Yoshua Bengio and Rich Sutton – who chose postings in Canada over opportunities in the U.S. They established Canada's leadership in an area of computing once dismissed as the "lunatic fringe" until breakthroughs this decade caught the attention of Silicon Valley.

Dr. Pineau is an expert in "reinforcement learning" whereby machines are taught to make unsupervised decisions in pursuit of set goals. She also builds robots and is developing a smart wheelchair. Dr. Vincent's expertise is in "neural networks," where machines are taught to function like human brains as they process information and make decisions. He co-founded the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms with Dr. Bengio.

The move further cements Canada's importance in the exploding field of AI, where demand for talent far exceeds supply. Many academics have joined U.S. giants on their own terms, staying put to build labs in their hometowns rather than move south, and retaining their academic affiliations. They include University of Toronto professor Raquel Urtasun, an expert in driverless car technology, who is leading a Toronto lab for Uber Technologies, and University of Alberta professor Dr. Sutton, who is co-leading a lab in Edmonton for DeepMind Technologies, owned by Google parent Alphabet. Both Dr. Pineau and Dr. Vincent will also stay employed by their universities.

They follow U of T professor Geoff Hinton – regarded as the "godfather of deep learning" – who works for Google in Toronto, and University of Sherbrooke's Hugo Larochelle, also employed by Google.

But the Silicon Valley brain grab is also heightening concerns Canada's economic interests are being pushed aside as global giants seek dominance in a field expected to have broad impacts on science, innovation and everyday life. AI already powers the features that suggest songs, movies and books on popular Web services, personal assistants in smartphones and face-recognition software in Apple's new iPhone X. "Facebook today could basically not function" without AI, said Yann LeCun, director of Facebook AI Research.

In response, Ottawa, Ontario and Quebec have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to fund AI research and institutes in Canada to ensure the country remains draw for AI talent.

"Facebook's new lab in Montreal will underline Canada's status as a global AI powerhouse and a leader in the economy of the future – and encourage other leading tech companies to set up shop here and create good, middle-class jobs for Canadians," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday in Montreal at the announcement of the new AI lab.

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But some of the biggest stars in the field also see a downside.

"Clearly [Facebook's lab] will increase Canada's visibility as a major AI player," said Dr. Bengio, who has turned down U.S. offers and instead co-founded a hot Montreal startup. "The negative obviously is that we're losing [some] of the few professors in Canada in the field. It's very important to have enough of these people because the economy and the innovation and the growth require that we train more people with those skills."

Brendan Frey, a top AI academic at U of T who leads AI startup Deep Genomics, said, "I personally don't believe that a foreign company setting up a research lab in Canada and employing [local experts] should be considered as a success for Canada" on its own. Rather, he said, a successful ecosystem would also include prosperous homegrown AI firms that draw top talent.

"Essentially the question is: How much is that company generating for Canada?" Dr. Frey said. "Obviously if you employ 20 researchers that's great, they'll buy groceries and pay taxes in Canada. But that's quite different than a company paying large portions of its total taxes in Canada and employing tens of thousands of people here."

Dr. Pineau brushed aside some of the concerns, saying for the last decade "I've watched as all of my masters and PhD students left Canada" to work. "Now we're offering great research options [here] … that is a really big gain for Canada."

Her lab will do both fundamental research and help develop products and features for Facebook, such as personal assistants, translation, image recognition and virtual agents that can have proper conversations with humans.

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She added she was ready for a change after 12 years at McGill and warmed to the idea of working for Facebook because the company gives its AI researchers "a tremendous amount of autonomy" and is committed "to doing open science" and collaborating with her university.

Facebook is also providing more than $7-million to fund work by students of Dr. Pineau and Dr. Vincent and will underwrite the creation of a Canadian research chair.

Dr. Pineau said she will initially spend about half her time on McGill activities and continue to support her graduate students, but will stop teaching in the winter term and reduce her McGill-oriented work next year.

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