Article Mila

Mila: When researchers and industries work together to drive AI development

Québec Montréal,

Discussion with Valérie Pisano, President and CEO of Mila

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Founded in 2009 by Université de Montréal Professor Yoshua Bengio, Mila is an artificial intelligence (AI) research laboratory focussing on deep learning. Mila was recently set up as a not-for-profit organization and has broadened its mission. Moreover, it now has a Board of Directors made up of 12 leaders from the university and business communities. Pierre Boivin, President and CEO of Claridge, is Mila’s Chair. A discussion with Valérie Pisano, who was recently appointed Mila’s President and CEO. 

What is Mila and what is its mandate?

Mila – the Québec Artificial Intelligence Institute, is the largest academic research centre in the world specializing in automated learning (deep learning and reinforcement learning). Since 2017, Mila has been the fruit of collaborative efforts by Université de Montréal and McGill University, working closely with Polytechnique Montréal and HEC Montréal.

Our mandate includes four major components:

  1. AI education to train, attract and retain talent
  2. Basic research to remain a leader in deep learning and reinforcement learning
  3. Technology transfer, which involves finding ways to apply scientific advancements in different industries
  4. Social dialogue to ensure that innovations meet industry needs, while remaining mindful of social and environmental issues

We believe it is very important for Mila’s activities to have a positive impact on society, over and above the economic spin-offs. I would say that this social commitment is something that sets us apart from many other AI research centres in the world. 

What form will the collaboration between researchers and businesses take?

It will take different forms. We have new space in the Mile-Ex neighbourhood of Montréal, which will be ready at the end of the year. In addition to all the courses to be provided on site, we have created a zone for students who want to start an AI company. We will also have an Espace CDPQ zone for start-ups and SMEs in which la Caisse has invested, in order to provide access to Mila’s work. These companies will be able to have their team members work on site for a period of time to encourage collaboration with our researchers and ensure that they optimize the incorporation of AI into their processes and business activities. We could also lease space to companies seeking to develop AI-driven applications. Therefore, Mila is a complete ecosystem with professors, researchers, students and entrepreneurs working under one roof. 

Can you provide a concrete example?

Our goal is to support businesses that have already developed certain expertise and a specific AI project. A recent example is our work with Tootelo Innovation to drive the Bonjour-santé™ application even further. With support from our researchers, a tool was developed to analyze data collected by the company over the years, in order to reduce wait times in participating clinics to approximately 20 minutes, thanks to an algorithm that makes predictions based on analyses of 1,900 variables. 

Mila’s advancements in deep learning will also lead to the use of decision-assistance systems in fighting cancer. Recently, Olympus, a global leader in the surgery and endoscopy market, announced that it would be incorporating certain technologies developed by Imagia, Mila’s partner, to predict pathology in real time during examinations to screen for colorectal cancer.

What are Montréal’s strengths in the area of artificial intelligence?

Montréal’s first strength is, beyond a doubt, its talent. And I must say that Professor Bengio plays a key role. His worldwide reputation allows us to attract and retain talent. He is the person who brought so many AI specialists to Montréal. Our challenge, now, will be to maintain, broaden and grow this talent. Of course, we will need researchers, but also professionals specializing in AI to build internal capabilities within companies. 

To achieve this, we will need to develop short training programs making it possible to build AI expertise without studying for many years. Thanks to Mila, a professional Master’s program and a graduate diploma in automated learning will be offered starting this fall. The idea is to train more AI professionals, not just researchers. I see a somewhat similar comparison with the IT sector: several years ago, expertise was rare and highly sought-after. Many people were attracted to the field such that, today, all major companies have specialized IT teams.

Montréal’s other strength is having a player like Mila, which has successfully created a dynamic AI ecosystem. The Mile-Ex neighbourhood, where we will set up our operations, is also home to organizations such as IVADO, major laboratories for companies such as Facebook, Google and Thales, as well as young and more powerful companies, such as Element AI and Imagia. All of these players in the same neighbourhood will work together to push AI and the related applications forward. Also, the Québec and federal governments believe in the potential of AI and have not hesitated to invest in this area. 

That being said, even though Montréal is already well known, our AI centre will be of modest size compared to what is being developed in the U.S. and China. That is why we need to be creative to maintain our position, to bring together all of the players and to use all of Montréal’s leverage to remain a world-class centre of excellence in AI. 

What drew you to this role within Mila?

I spent the last 15 years of my career helping people, especially in complex and rapidly changing situations. Something is happening in AI right now. It is the most important human change that we will experience. And we have an opportunity, in Montréal, to make a contribution, to be influencers and even to be players in this new field. It is a unique opportunity to take part in something really interesting. 

A number of challenges await me in my new duties. One will be to ensure that all players are working towards the same goals, even if they have different perspectives. We must ensure that energy is not wasted working in opposite directions. I will also need to ensure that I create an inspiring and pleasant environment so that ideas can collide in a rich and dynamic environment within Mila, but also with our business partners.  

In short, I must ensure that we have a strong and healthy organization that can take off and achieve its full potential. And all this with human values and the desire to contribute to the community.