This text is part of the special section “100 years of Acfas”.
The invention of the Internet at the end of the 20th century changed our lives. It also allowed another technological revolution to accelerate in the 2010s: artificial intelligence (AI). In Montreal, a rich ecosystem of researchers is forming around one of the fathers of deep learning, Yoshua Bengio. The history of AI is just beginning.
Artificial intelligence (AI) as an independent field of research was born in 1956 at the Dartmouth Conference. But the craze that followed in the 1960s gradually gave way to a lean period. “The promises of the 1970s and 1980s were not kept, and funding for artificial intelligence was greatly reduced,” says Maxime Kolleret, a science historian and doctoral student at the University of Quebec in Montreal. Therefore, researchers interested in these technologies do not have the data necessary for the algorithms to work.
In the early 2010s, favorable winds again blew on AI: “The computing power of computers has improved significantly,” says Maxim Kolleret. In addition, the Internet and social networks generate large amounts of data on which algorithms can be trained. »
At the University of Montreal, Yoshua Bengio, professor in the Department of Computer Science and Operations Research, is working with a team of researchers on deep learning, which draws inspiration from the human brain to teach machines how to learn. “About 2011-2012, performance breakthroughs for voice and object recognition began to be seen in these methods, which generated a lot of interest in the research world as well as in industry,” explains Simon Lacoste (Julien), a professor in the same department.
Artificial intelligence is starting to attract investors again. “We promise that this will bring great social and economic benefits. Some even predict that it will change society as a whole and automate intellectual work,” says Maxim Kolleret. The predictions are “hyperbolic, as is often the case during major technological breakthroughs,” according to the historian of science. In response, the governments of Canada and Quebec have invested significant capital.
Mila: Crossroads of Talents
In 2017, $100 million was allocated to support AI development in Quebec, and the Artificial Intelligence Cluster Steering Committee (COGIA) was established to manage the investment. In 2018, he recommended that the government invest significant public funds to support the creation and operation of a key organization between academia and industry: Mila (Quebec Institute for Artificial Intelligence). This institute, founded by Yoshua Bengio at the University of Montreal in 1993, was formerly named Lisa (Computer Science Laboratory for Adaptive Systems). “Yoshua Bengio wanted to create a sort of AI Silicon Mountain in Montreal to continue building a critical mass of researchers and attracting talent,” says Simon Lacoste-Julien, who joined his team in 2016. Other organizations created since 2015 (IVADO, IVADO Labs and Scale AI) also receive public funds.
Montreal’s funding and ecosystem are attracting giants such as Google, Facebook, Samsung and Microsoft to set up research labs in the metropolis. Former researchers from Yoshua Bengio’s team, such as Hugo Larochelle (of Google Brain), are returning to Montreal after working abroad. Students too. “We are in the second or third generation, formed by Mila, who is starting to educate other people,” says Sasha Lucioni, a researcher in the field of artificial intelligence.
Ethics at the forefront
Several great AI researchers joined the industry in the 2010s, such as Briton Geoffrey Hinton (Google) or Frenchman Yann LeCun (Facebook). Université de Montréal to continue the development of the university ecosystem,” said Simon Lacoste-Julien. He is also interested in the ethical aspects of AI. Playing a central role in the development and dissemination of the Montreal Declaration on the Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence, a preliminary version of which was released in 2017, he “surrounds himself with people with the same vision, which creates a critical mass around the ethic,” explains Sasha Lucioni. A concept engraved in Mila’s values. “It helps us remember to always include it in our research,” says Simon Lacoste-Julien.
In addition, the institute has just integrated a new ethics curriculum, the TRAIL program, into its students’ curriculum. According to Sasha Lucioni, this innovation will fill an important gap. “Computing is generally considered to be computer-centric, not society-centric. Until now, it has not trained undergraduates or doctoral students in AI, ”says the researcher.
However, there are many problems such as biases created or reinforced by unannounced algorithms or virtual assistants (chatbots) on the Internet. “They have become so effective that users can confuse them with people,” warns Simon Lacoste-Julien. Too often, however, computer science researchers “are not really aware of the problems these tools create,” he notes. There is nothing artificial about teaching them these tasks.