Facebook announced that it would be basing its first Canadian research laboratory in Montreal at a press conference at McGill’s Faculty Club on Friday Sept. 15. The city is home to the offices of many tech companies—including Google and Ubisoft—and the city’s burgeoning tech industry has received millions in investments from the government. Various stakeholders—including chief scientists, Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—met to discuss the creation of a thriving ecosystem for artificial intelligence (AI) research at McGill, Montreal, and in Canada as a whole.
The Facebook AI Research (FAIR) department, which strives to advance all aspects of AI, will lead the endeavor. Yann LeCun, the director of FAIR’s New York location, sees potential for successful AI research in Montreal. Specifically, LeCun praised McGill’s ‘Open Science’ policy of making research data publicly available. He emphasized the need for a unified effort between scientists across the globe to further AI innovation.
“Many of us, including me, have [one] foot in industry research and one in academia,” LeCun said in a speech at the press conference. “We publish everything we do, we release all code in open source, and that means we can collaborate with universities without second thoughts to intellectual property.”
McGill Associate Professor of Computer Science Joëlle Pineau will serve as director of FAIR’s Montreal lab while splitting her time at the university. In her talk at the conference, she echoed LeCun’s sentiments about the value of Open Science and anticipated the implications that the partnership will have for her students, many of whom leave Canada after graduation.
“I hope some of the students that are here today will find an opportunity that matches their interests and their talent, and have a reason to stay in Montreal,” Pineau said. “They’re going to contribute to our economy, they’re going to contribute to our communities, they’re such a fantastic group of young people, and it’s really exciting for me to think that some of them will stay with us in the longer term.”
FAIR’s investment is part of a national trend contributing to AI research, most recently marked with the March announcement of a $125 million investment in a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy. The funding will go toward improving computer science education, establishing networks between AI research initiatives, and explaining the implications of AI for society. Trudeau shared his vision for how the strategy will integrate AI technologies into the daily life of Canadians in his talk at the press conference.
“With a strong research community and well-educated workforce, Canada is the right place to shape the future,” Trudeau said. “A future where things like artificial intelligence and deep learning help create jobs, improve our quality of life, and generate new opportunities for the middle class and those working hard to join it.”
Although the focus of the conference was the future growth of AI, Trudeau reminded audience members that the technology is already used for a variety of purposes.
“As much as AI is about the future, it is already shaping the world we live in today,” Trudeau said. “From funny filters on social media, to systems that can identify the most deadly forms of skin cancer, AI is already part of our lives, even if we don’t realize it. That’s just how broad its applications can be.”
Despite conference speakers’ positive tone, the event sparked criticism among some members of the student body. Several hours after Trudeau’s arrival on campus, a group of student activists, including Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President External Connor Spencer, gathered outside the Faculty Club in protest. Chanting ‘[the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] UNDRIP over AI,’ the students condemned Trudeau’s failed promises to Indigenous communities in Canada and his neglect of the presence of the 16th Annual Pow Wow occurring on lower field concurrently with the press conference.
“Literally 100 feet away from where he was meeting today, the 16th annual Pow Wow was happening,” Spencer said. “We want to make sure […he] understands that the youth priorities are not what he is showing to be youth priorities. It’s not social media, it’s Indigenous rights.”