Canada’s Leading AI Researchers Put Their Money Where Their Mouths Are

Technology is inherently neutral but its applications aren’t. As our lives are irrevocably altered by wave after wave of innovation, it’s clear that we need to think about the implications of the tech we roll out and the business models we create before things have gone awry, not after lives have been ruined and society has toppled over the edge. Gone are the days of building addictive products with a clear conscience. We now know the implications. We know the great good and harm that technological advances can cause. We are entering a new age of scientific and technological progress and the leaders are those with an eye to both the incredible opportunities and potential pitfalls on the horizon.

With artificial intelligence penetrating just about every sector, humankind has the opportunity to improve outcomes across the spectrum of industry: from healthcare to education to finance to farming. It’s an unprecedented opportunity and one which we need to approach with consciousness and intent. Canada is in a unique position in that we are home not only to two of the great pioneers of the field — Yoshua Bengio and Geoffrey Hinton — but also because we have strength in numbers in our artificial intelligence and machine learning research community, a community that is already close-knit, collaborative and believes that this technology can do significant good in the world.

“Canada’s AI research community is putting particular importance on the social and ethical aspects of AI, in line with Canada’s values,” Yoshua Bengio says. “Because of the prominence of AI as it is being deployed in society, leaders of AI are given a voice. I feel like it is both an opportunity and a duty to use that voice wisely, to help steer our societies towards socially-beneficial applications of AI and speak out when AI is being misused,” he continues.

Putting money where our mouths are — literally — Montreal’s researchers and tech leaders have launched initiatives in support of the less fortunate in our society. A great example is TechAide AI on April 26, a conference and fundraiser in support of Centraide of Greater Montreal, spearheaded by Hugo Larochelle of Google Brain, and featuring such AI leaders as Bengio and Joelle Pineau (McGill professor and lead of Facebook’s AI research lab in Montreal) among other seasoned and up-and-coming researchers from Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Element AI.

The goal of the conference is twofold: to give students free access to some of the newest, cutting-edge research in the field, and to raise funds for Centraide to help break the cycle of poverty and social exclusion in Greater Montreal. Larochelle has pledged to match donations to Centraide up to $25,000.

“We all share this strong commitment in Montreal to build an ecosystem that is thriving and dynamic,” he says. “When I mentioned […] the TechAide AI conference, I got support from my peers very quickly. We’re contributing to essentially the same mission — to try to make Montreal the best place in the world to do AI and machine learning. And we’re also all trying to make our contribution towards training the next generation of students because we know that’s important for the field and also for Montreal.”

As an investor in technology companies, Real Ventures shares this sentiment. Not only has the firm worked tirelessly over the past decade to help lay the foundations for a thriving startup community in Montreal and across Canada, but our founding partners have been instrumental in launching initiatives and organizations like OSMO and TechAide, which focus on strengthening community and enabling create positive outcomes for all involved.

“We were all born to pay it forward and getting together to give back creatively with our time, ideas or money is vital,” says Real partner and TechAide Ambassador, Alan MacIntosh. “The TechAide AI conference is a rare occasion for the leaders in Canadian AI to not only disseminate their latest ideas but also to help support those in our society who need it the most.”

Yoshua Bengio echoes this sentiment. “The AI R&D community has a responsibility to give back to the community. We are privileged in many ways, and so it’s only natural to do so,” he says. “AI technology is already powerful and will become even more so in the future, as the underlying science progresses, datasets become larger, specialized hardware more efficient and cheaper, and engineers and entrepreneurs invent new ways of using AI,” he continues.

“Powerful tools can be used for good, or misused. I wish that society would become wiser faster, that our wisdom would progress at least as fast as our tools. Otherwise, the risk of misuse and of highly negative impact will increase, especially from the hands of those most desperate on the planet. Hence, it is crucially important to make sure that in the future, every human being benefits from this progress, that we develop not just technology but also into more just and more socially responsible societies.”

Bengio and his colleagues at Mila (the Montreal Institute for Machine Learning) have already been deeply involved in working to shape the way the world views and adopts AI technology by showing moral leadership. Mila has partnered with and is co-founding AI Commons, an AI for Social Good meta-project aiming to bring together AI experts, data scientists, problem owners (e.g., NGOs) and philanthropist to collaborate on solving socially-important problems with AI around the world. The organization would help with data management, providing computing resources, and evaluating projects in a transparent way.

Montreal also boasts exceptional benchmarks such as the Montreal Declaration for a Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence and Montreal AI Ethics Institute’s bi-monthly meetups that show the city’s moral and ethical leadership in the field of AI.

Other initiatives include the TechAide AI4Good conference in July, which aims to encourage “interdisciplinary discussion and a forum for AI researchers and non-profit organizations to address important challenges related to the Montreal society, and thus forge future possible collaborations.” This is not to be confused with the AI4Good Summer Lab, a 7-week program for female computer science students, also initiated by OSMO, that has “the ambitious goals of tackling diversity and inclusion in AI research and development, and inspiring the next generation of technical leaders to develop AI as a force for social good.” IVADO also runs a summer school on bias and discrimination in AI as “an attempt to engage multi-disciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners to explore the social and technical dimensions of bias, discrimination and fairness in machine learning and algorithm design.”

“Machine Learning and Computer Vision technologies have many positive impacts and potential in our society. Many applications such as medical applications of AI are designed to improve the quality of our lives. I believe we need to be optimistic, but at the same time, we should also be mindful about the potential cases that our technologies do more harm than good,” says Negar Rostamzadeh, Research Scientist at Element AI and another speaker at TechAide AI. “It makes me really happy to see how mindful prominent researchers in Canada are about the impacts of AI research and addressing the cases that can go wrong.”

In addition to the strong research community, there are also a number of notable Canadian startups working with AI to solve social issues and build a better future. These range from Delphia, a company that is sourcing ethical or “clean” data from consenting users, who are compensated for their data-use, to XpertSea, an aquaculture startup that uses AI to count fish and shrimp larvae with an eye to helping feed the world in a more sustainable way. Investing in and helping these society-shaping companies to grow and succeed is not only part of our mission as a VC firm but also the direction in which we hope to help steer society at large.

“AI is a tool for doing many different things. It isn’t just computer vision and natural language processing,” Larochelle says. “AI is already impacting the world in so many ways but that’s why it’s important that we continue doing this research and helping the world.”