BY Zina Chouaibi & Gabriel Guindi

The artificial intelligence (AI) industry is rapidly expanding in Montreal. From playing host to research labs to major companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft to becoming a home for renowned talent and universities worldwide.

One of them is a third-year Ph.D. candidate at Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA), which specializes in natural language processing.

PHD graduate working on laptop

A Ph.D Graduate works on a project at Mila. Photo by Gabriel Guindi.

Four years ago, Abdelrahman Zayed moved to Montreal to pursue his master’s in electrical and computer engineering at Concordia University. He developed an interest in AI and a passion for the city. His interest in the industry peaked due to the work being done by major players, particularly Yoshua Bengio, one of the founding fathers of the deep learning movement and head of the MILA Artificial Intelligence Research Institute.

“MILA has contributed to the growth of the local AI sector for sure […] New students and researchers come specifically to Montreal because of MILA’s reputation,” says Zayed.

“The environment is super diverse, and full of talented people from all over the world,” he adds.

Montreal’s McGill University and Université de Montréal have more than 250 researchers and doctoral students in fields related to artificial intelligence, making the city the largest AI academic community in the world.

Alex Shee, is the executive in charge of Corporate Development and Strategy at Sama, a training company focusing on annotating data for artificial intelligence algorithms. He notes that Montreal has many advantages for students of AI.

Sama employees working

A look at the Sama offices. Photo by Zina-Chouaibi.

“The quality of living and lower cost of living than other hubs like San Francisco or London, UK also contribute to Montreal’s success.” Shee says.

Montreal International is a non-profit organization whose mission is to attract direct foreign investment, international organizations, entrepreneurs, talented workers, and international students to the region. According to Mark Maclean, the Senior Director of Business Development, the presence of these research institutions is why major players including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are investing in Montreal’s AI industry.

“Bringing their business to Montreal is a way to gain access to the best talent in the industry,” he says. “By tapping into Montreal’s vast pool of creative professionals, they can ensure that their venture is well positioned for success.”

Mila workers collaborating on a whiteboard

Mila researchers collaborating using a whiteboard. Photo by Gabriel Guindi.

But, that is not the only reason for the city’s success. Maclean suggests that the governments are also playing a role.

“AI has seen considerable government support in recent years. The federal, provincial, and municipal governments have all invested in different initiatives,” says Maclean.

According to Investissement Quebec International (IQI), Quebec has received $100 million over five years for the creation of an AI cluster and $40 million for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.

“The Quebec and federal governments have significantly invested in making Montreal a world hub in AI through funding of research, infrastructure, venture funds, R&D tax credits amongst many other initiatives,” says Shee.

Reduced payroll taxes, low operational costs, competitive salary, tax advantages, and a sizable group of technology researchers are other reasons why both small and major businesses are flocking to the city.

A few of the world leaders developing their Ai Expertise in Montreal. Graphic by Zina Chouaibi

University research centres and commercial laboratories also frequently develop alliances.

“One very unique aspect of Montreal’s AI community is its collaborative and open culture. It is a close-knit community, where many people know and talk to each other, states Hugo Larochelle, lead of the Google Brain team in Montreal, and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Chair.

Discove the many Ai Institutions located in Montreal. Map by Zina Chouaibi.

Larochelle worked for a time in Silicon Valley. He says that, in contrast to its individualistic and competitive mentality, he prefers Montreal’s collaborative culture. And Larochelle and Google have themselves have contributed to that culture.

“I co-founded two events in Montreal when I joined the Brain team at Google and started the Montreal Brain team,” he says.

One of those events is the annual Montreal AI Symposium, which is free for students and showcases the latest research coming out of our local AI labs.

Healthcare is being revolutionized with AI. Video by Gabriel Guindi.

The second event is the TechAide AI Conference. T.A. research conference with the goal to raise money from the AI community for Centraide, a non-profit that aims to fight poverty and social exclusion in Montreal.

The event’s objective is to support the development of a culture of community.
“Our open and inclusive culture is a key differentiator I think, so we definitely want to maintain it.” Added Larochelle.

She believes the future is very bright for Montreal. “We have all the ingredients to continue to be a global hub for AI.”

Main image by Zina Chouaibi.
Published April 11, 2023.