UPDATED 13:12 EST / JANUARY 18 2017

montreal EMERGING TECH

Microsoft is investing in new Montreal deep learning hub to advance AI

Five days after acquiring Montreal-based deep learning startup Maluuba Inc., Microsoft Corp. has revealed plans to dramatically expand its research presence in the Canadian city.

The push will focus on two main areas. First, Microsoft intends to double its local engineering staff and establish a new artificial intelligence development hub with Maluuba serving as the nucleolus. The technology giant didn’t specify exactly what kind of work will be carried out at the center, but it’s safe to assume that its activities will have some connection to the research that Maluuba was pursuing prior to last week’s acquisition.

The startup was launched in 2014 with the goal of developing general-purpose artificial intelligence that can handle a variety of different tasks — in other words, a system that works like the human brain. Maluuba’s research placed a particular emphasis on enabling computers to comprehend visual input and speech more effectively, a goal that is directly relevant to Microsoft’s product ambitious.

The technology giant is hard at work developing artificial intelligence tools that can help its users become more productive. On the consumer front, Microsoft offers the Cortana virtual assistant, which its cloud division sells services that can help other organizations provide similar capabilities for their own customers. In November, the company added a chatbot-building tool to its Azure platform that promises to ease the creation of interactive agents.

But providing new and more convenient ways for customers to use artificial intelligence is only part of the picture. To make its algorithms more human-like, Microsoft will also require advances in the theoretical realm, which is where the second element of today’s investment comes into play.

The company said it will contribute $7 million over the next five years to support artificial intelligence research in academia. About $6 million of it will go to Université de Montréal, which hosts the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms. The department is not coincidentally headed by Yoshua Bengio, an early pioneer in the field of deep learning who provided extensive research guidance for Maluuba. Moreover, he agreed to join Microsoft as an adviser following last week’s acquisition.

The remaining $1 million will be donated to McGill University, which has also made substantial contributions to artificial intelligence research. The two universities give Montreal the largest concentration of deep learning talent in the world with more than 150 researchers between them. Microsoft’s new investment should help cement the city’s position as a hub for AI innovation.

Image via StockSnap

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