Facebook is the latest tech giant to hunt for AI talent in Canada

Facebook is turning its attention to Canada with a new AI research office in Montreal. Google and Microsoft already have outposts in the city and countless other tech companies, including Uber, have researchers based in Canada. McGill University’s Joelle Pineau will be leading Facebook’s AI efforts in Montreal.

Pineau’s research focus tends to lean heavily on robotics and dialog systems, particularly applications of reinforcement learning. Dialog research and natural language processing (NLP) more broadly is one of the core interests of Facebook’s AI Research (FAIR) Lab for obvious reasons — Facebook is home to a lot of text. And Facebook M, its personal assistant, in particular relies heavily on dialog.

With uncertainty in the American immigration system, Canada is emerging as a center for research work. While the U.S. still leads the world in AI talent, some of the best researchers come from abroad. Canada’s own schools like Waterloo and McGill (to name a few) are AI research centers and programs further abroad at schools like Tsinghua and Cambridge are exceedingly strong.

With there still being a shortage of AI talent, Facebook’s office in Montreal will provide the company access to a secure pipeline of gifted researchers. While Yann LeCun, head of Facebook AI Research, said that immigration policy didn’t play into his team’s decision to expand to Montreal, he did note the clear benefits of operating in the region.

“Part of the reason for establishing ourselves here is taking advantage of this pool of talent,” LeCun noted in an interview. “This didn’t factor into our decision, but immigration in Canada is more well organized than immigration into the U.S..”

Facebook currently operates AI research centers in Paris, New York City and Menlo Park, employing about 105 researchers. The aim is to grow the Montreal group from its founding team of four to 30 or 40 FAIRly quickly.

As part of this announcement, Facebook is donating money to McGill and the University of Montreal to support graduate students and help improve computational infrastructure. While working to hire a team for Facebook, Pineau will be maintaining her academic position at McGill. If you’re interested in reading some of Pineau’s work, including some particularly interesting applications of machine learning to medical use cases, you can find the papers on the McGill site.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be speaking about Facebook’s efforts in Montreal tomorrow morning at around 11am EST. The event will be live streamed here.