Facebook hires AI expert, launches lab in Canada’s Montreal

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Facebook Inc has hired artificial intelligence academic Joelle Pineau to head its new research lab in Montreal, the Silicon Valley social media company said on Friday.

Once the exclusive domain of academic researchers, artificial intelligence has grabbed the attention of the corporate world as businesses from healthcare to financial services look to use algorithms to sort through reams of data in search of patterns to solve problems.

The lab will be Facebook's fourth, after sites in Palo Alto, New York, and Paris, and joins similar AI research efforts in the city from Microsoft Corp and Alphabet's Google.

The company will also invest $7 million to support AI research at academic institutions in Montreal, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research said in a statement.

Pineau is a co-director of McGill University's Reasoning and Learning Lab whose work focuses on developing and applying models and algorithms applying robotics to healthcare, transportation and language processing.

One project she has been working on at McGill, where she will maintain her academic position, is a robotic wheelchair.

Pineau will be joined by fellow researchers Pascal Vincent, Michael Rabbat and Nicolas Ballat, and Facebook expects the team to grow to around 30 researchers.

Facebook already uses AI for image recognition, language analysis and targeted advertising. It also uses AI to identify and remove what the company deems “inappropriate content.”

The Facebook project will be connected to McGill University’s Centre for Intelligent Machines and to the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, started by University of Montreal professor and machine learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio, two sources with knowledge of the plans said.

Combined, University of Montreal and McGill have more than 200 researchers, including students, working on AI research projects, Bengio said. That is up from around 150 cited by Google last year, which it called the greatest academic concentration of AI research in the world.

The mostly French-speaking province of Quebec boasts around 90 start-up companies focused on artificial intelligence.

The Canadian federal government has pledged C$125 million to build AI expertise in Montreal, the Toronto-Waterloo corridor, and Edmonton, while the provincial Quebec government has also promised some C$100 million ($82 million) specifically for AI research.

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