The transformation of an old garment district in Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie into Montreal’s artificial intelligence hub took another step forward on Monday with the inauguration of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms’ new headquarters.
The organization, a partnership between the Université de Montréal and McGill university, aims to bring together the different parts of Montreal’s AI “ecosystem,” said Valérie Pisano, the president and CEO of MILA.
Around 700 people will work at the 90,000 square foot facility on St-Urbain St. in the Marconi-Alexandra sector, the area now often known as Mile-Ex.
Among them, 350 researchers, including students and professors; 100 students in a professional master’s program; and 150 people who work for private companies that have offices in the centre, Pisano said.
While the facility will host corporate labs and startups, Pisano said MILA will continue to focus on fundamental research, particularly in the areas of deep learning and reinforcement learning — two artificial intelligence techniques — as well as the commercialization of research.
Excellence in fundamental research is what sets MILA apart, said Yoshua Bengio, MILA’s scientific director and a U de M professor. Bengio, one of the pioneers of deep learning, founded the lab that eventually grew into MILA.
The institute is now home to a critical mass of researchers in deep learning and their research is attracting partners and other researchers, he said.
Montreal has a “little bit of headway” when it comes to AI research, Bengio said, “but the rest of the world isn’t waiting and is pressing on the gas like crazy and investing billions and billions of dollars. We know countries like China are investing massively … it’s important to think about what we have here and how we build MILA so that we can compete in this global environment.”
In May 2017, the Quebec government promised $100 million in funding for MILA over the following five years. Economy Minster Pierre Fitzgibbon said the Coalition Avenir Québec would honour that commitment.
Fitzgibbon said he sees AI as a way to make Quebec more competitive by increasing productivity — though he acknowledged that there are fears people will be put out of work by the technology.
“We need AI, we need machine learning, we need the development of new technology to get people more efficient, I think that over the long run it’s going to be beneficial, furthermore, I think we’re going to see that most of the new jobs created through AI will be high-quality jobs, high-paying jobs,” he said. “We have to be cautious, but we are at full employment, so there’s no better time to address that.”
For UEAT, one of the startups that will be located in the centre as part of partnership with the Caisse de dépôt et placement, being part of MILA will accelerate its ability to put new features online, said CEO Alexandre Martin.
He said the company, which makes an online ordering platform for restaurants, will benefit from being close to fundamental research that it couldn’t do on its own.
The city of Montreal will also set up an office in the centre.
Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie Borough Mayor François Croteau, who was first elected in 2009, said his administration rejected proposals to turn the old textile factories that now house MILA into condos, because he wanted to ensure it could become an employment hub again in the the future.
The arrival of new jobs in Mile Ex is good news for merchants in Little Italy and other parts of the borough, he said, but he’s also focused on ensuring that residents, as well as artists who had set-up workshops in area, won’t be pushed out by new arrivals.
“It’s a good thing, it’s a positive thing, but we have to take care of the residents and the artists to be sure that they’re part of the project,” Croteau said.
This article originally appeared in Montreal Gazette