Montréal is shaping the future of artificial intelligence

published on March 23, 2017
Trends and Technology

Jean-François Gagné sees the future, and it’s happening in Montréal. Element AI — a startup he cofounded with Artificial Intelligence pioneer Yoshua Bengio and Jean-Sebastien Cournoyer of Real Ventures — received an big boost of support this past December with an investment by Microsoft. For Element AI’s CEO Gagné, that was simply a sign that Montréal is being recognized for the expertise it has developed in the field. Element AI is collaborating with Real Ventures, Canada’s leading early stage venture capital fund, to build the AI ecosystem across the country with projects including an AI Cloud, centres of excellence and world class events.

“We’ve been working on Element AI for more than a year now,” he says. “We knew what was coming, and we prepared ourselves to be part of that wave. But we never imagined the fundamental shift that it created for Montréal or Canada, driving so much of the world’s attention toward us.”


Travelling the world to meet with AI companies and designers, Gagné hears from everyone that Montréal is the it-city for Artificial Intelligence.


“We already had that reputation on the academic side,” Gagné says, “but now it’s spread to common knowledge. People in business and startups know that if you want to build AI, Montréal is the place you want to go.”

For many years now, Montréal has been known for video games and, of course, pharmaceutical labs have a strong foothold here as well. But Gagné says that it’s hard, for example, for an individual pharma employee with a big idea to quit their job, invent a drug, and bring it to market. AI, on the other hand, is scaled perfectly for a city full of universities where people are doing some of the most visionary thinking about in the world on the subject. The fact that so much of the code libraries are open source and research papers are readily available online also democratizes the access to information, while accelerating the launch of new projects.

The other key difference between today and Montréal a few years ago is the advent of a robust startup infrastructure.

“The startup ecosystem wasn’t as mature a few years ago as it is now,” Gagné says, “and the impact of the technology was also not as broad as it is today.”


Last September, the federal government’s Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) granted more than $200 million to three AI projects based out of Montréal universities. With that recognition of the work on “Deep Learning” taking place across the academic landscape at McGill, École Polytechnique, HEC Montréal, and the Université de Montréal (UdM), this city’s unofficial title of Canada’s AI centre became formal.

“In doing that, [the CFREF] secured long-term access to talent of extremely high quality,” explains Gagné. “And that, in turn, was the signal to a lot organizations to start opening labs here in Montréal.

Much of this is connected to Yoshua Bengio, co-founder of Element AI and a Université de Montréal and Canada Research Chair considered one of Deep Learning’s founding fathers. At the same time as the funding announcement last fall, Bengio was helping launch the Institute for Data Valorization (IVADO), a multidisciplinary union of thinkers from UdM, Polytechnique and HEC designed to bridge the hard academia of AI research with the hard money of businesses wishing to work in the realm.


With ideological underpinnings in four of Montréal’s universities, strong connections to the startup ecosystem, and major entities like Element AI gaining their balance, the AI boom is going to make Montreal a global AI hub. And as one of only a small number of cities around the world where AI is being developed at the elite level, the city can expect to see development unlike anything in living memory.

“It’s a field that will continue making tremendous developments over the next ten years or more,” Gagné says. “For anyone who wants to do serious AI, it will be of strategic importance to keep your eye on Montréal. We see it now in terms of reputation, but that means Montréal is able to attract top talent from elsewhere—top entrepreneurs, and large organizations.”


What will it look like? Gagné laughs—right now the science is a little abstract for those outside of the discipline to grasp, and he’s worried listeners will get bored. But he offers tantalizing hints.

“We’re starting to scratch the service of making very sophisticated approaches and getting them to work,” he says. “Things like getting AI to do things like figure itself out, and figure out its own data structures, and do unsupervised learning.”


Even a few years ago this would have sounded like science fiction. But Gagné is already thinking in the future, saying that once they’ve developed a firm structure for that technology, the cost of deploying AI is going to plunge and within five to ten years, it should be introduced in a huge variety of places across all our lives.


C2 Montréal, in partnership with Element AI, will hold Montréal’s first AI forum during this year’s conference, which will take place from May 24 to 26. Element AI co-founders Yoshua Bengio and Jean-François Gagné will be presenting keynotes speeches.