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Montreal conference on Artificial Intelligence


AI poses ethical double-edged sword, experts tell Montreal conference

Montreal Gazette JACOB SEREBRIN

Artificial intelligence has the power to eliminate mundane jobs and create tremendous wealth, but it could also lead to widespread unemployment and reinforce existing inequalities.

That was the message at the forum on the socially responsible development of artificial intelligence, a two-day conference that ended on Friday.

Montreal has an opportunity to take a leading role in lead in ensuring AI technology is used responsibly, said Marie-Josée Hébert, the vice-rector of Research, Discovery, Creation and Innovation at the Université de Montréal and one of the organizers of the conference.

The forum was intended to bring academic researchers together with industry and government to exchange ideas about the responsible development and use of AI, she said. That’s important because the technology has the power to change the foundations of our society, she said.

Issues raised at the forum ranged from who is legally liable if a selfdriving car gets in an accident, to the possibility AI will lead to widespread unemployment.

Some of the issues are already here — like the ability for the creators of AI systems and the producers of data to introduce their own biases into AI systems.

“If you have an algorithm that sees biased data, gender-biased, racially biased, biased based on economic status and so on, the algorithm is going to ingest that and result in a biased model,” Doina Precup, a professor of computer science at McGill and the head of Google-affiliated DeepMind’s Montreal research lab, said in a session at the conference.

While AI systems are currently tools used by people, in the future, there could be general AI systems that act on their own, she said, which raises further questions of responsibility.

“Are AIs ever going to get to a stage where they’re sufficiently complex to be responsible for what they do? That I think is an open question,” Precup said.

There are also issues related to monopoly power, Yoshua Bengio, a U de M professor and one of the founders of Element AI, which sells AI services to businesses, said in a speech at the event.

A handful of large companies could control the data required for AI systems to “learn” and hire the majority of top researchers, creating a situation where other businesses couldn’t catch up, Bengio said. He also raised the issue of autonomous robots with the ability to kill, calling on the Canadian government to take a similar approach to this technology as it took with landmines.

“We are really at the cusp of something that it is important,” Hébert said. “It’s important to initiate these conversations before it’s too late, but it’s going to be as important to maintain these conversations as we go.”

As part of that process, the forum has created what it calls the Montreal Declaration for a Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence. Over the next few months, that document will be developed through a process of “co-creation” and consultation with the general public.

The goal is to “establish a consensus on basic principles that are representative of our values,” Hébert said, “that should all guide us to how we are going to live through this phase of innovation and transformation.”

We are at the cusp of something important. It’s important to initiate these conversations before it’s too late.

Montreal’s Element AI to boost projects with $102M financing deal

Montreal Gazette  BERTRAND MAROTTE

Element CEO Jean-François Gagné, centre, speaks with staff in Montreal. His firm said new funding will allow it to hire hundreds of top researchers and expand worldwide with AI-based solutions. JOHN MAHONEY

Montreal-based Element AI, a key player in the city’s burgeoning artificial-intelligence sector, has clinched a major financing deal to fund future growth and job creation.

Element is set to announce on Wednesday that it has raised US$102-million from a group of investors led by San Francisco venture capital fund Data Collective (DCVC).

The deal is the largest Series A funding round for an AI company in history, according to Element.

The investment will allow Element to “accelerate its capabilities and invest in large-scale AI projects internationally, solidifying its position as the largest global AI company in Canada and creating 250 jobs in the Canadian high-tech sector by January 2018,” it said in a news release.

Element was founded last year by tech entrepreneurs Jean-François Gagné and Nicolas Chapados, Montreal venture capital fund Real Ventures, and Université de Montréal AI scientist Yoshua Bengio.

The company aims to make cutting-edge AI research and innovation available to other companies seeking to tap into AI and also help develop new firms in the rapidly growing field.

“Artificial intelligence is a ‘must have’ capability for global companies,” Element chief executive Gagné said. “Without it, they are competitively impaired if not at grave risk of being obseleted in place.

“Seasoned AI investors at DCVC understood this, and supported us to democratize the AI firepower reserved today for only the largest of tech corporations.”

The new funding will allow Element to hire hundreds of top researchers as well as expand internationally with AI-based solutions

for customers in such areas as cybersecurity, fintech, manufacturing, logistics, transportation and robotics, the company said.

Element boasts that it has “pioneered a unique, non-exploitative model of academic co-operation” whose talent and advanced research “matches or exceeds even the largest tech corporations’ reach and budgets.”

“The most serious problems facing global industry and government today involve too much complex and rapidly changing data for the cognitive capacity of even large numbers of human experts working together,” said DCVC managing partner Matt Ocko.

A central aspect of AI is machine learning, which involves the creation of computer neural networks that mimic human brain activity and can program themselves to solve complex problems rather than having to be programmed.

After three decades, Astro Books faces dire financial challenge

Comic Book store at 1844 Ste.Catherine St.W, near Guy, in danger of closing.   http://astrolib.com/

Astro Books is one of the largest retailers of new, used and collectible comics in Canada

Montreal Gazette, RENÉ BRUEMMER rbruemmer@postmedia.com twitter.com/renebruemmer

DAVE SIDAWAY Astro Books has launched a crowdfunding campaign in the hope that its loyal clientele can help offset a $20,000-plus tax bill. “If we can get through this year, I think we can make it,” says 71-year-old co-owner Betty Stock.

Love, comic books and addiction have colluded to keep Astro Books alive for more than three decades. But of late, Montreal’s rising commercial tax rates, construction and the indignities of age are conspiring against it.

After 33 years mainly in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce on Sherbrooke St., and downtown on Ste-Catherine St. a bit west of Guy, one of the largest comic-book retailers in the country is appealing to its local community with a crowdfunding campaign to help cover its $20,000-plus share of the landlord’s tax bill.

After a slow winter in which drivers who fear construction detours were reluctant to venture downtown while other customers chose cocooning over browsing, owners Paul and Betty Stock were unable to save for the tax hit. The financial situation for the siblings, for whom the store is both a lifeline and a way of life, is tight.

“If the money doesn’t come in, I think we will have to close. I think so,” says Betty, 71, who deals with customers and staff with a seasoned grumpiness offset by the twinkle in her eye. “And that’s hard.”

On top of the tax bill, Astro Books (or Librairie Astro, as the awning reads) has to deal with rent north of $3,500 a month, rising hydro and water meter bills and salaries for four employees.

The store’s dog-eared appearance and a window display featuring used books ranging from Shakespeare’s Othello to a dated copy of Lonely Planet’s guide to India belies a well-organized enterprise that sells in the range of 100,000 comic books a year, as well as CDs, videos, graphic novels, collectible cards and used books of the popular fiction variety.

Key to the comics sales is a reserve system for 400 clients (it used to be 600) for whom Astro puts aside new orders as deliveries come in each week. Most customers pick them up, while some orders are mailed out as far as Taiwan. Some clients order dozens of titles — one pays $125 a week for his comic fix — but most are in the $10-to-$15-a-week range.

It has made Astro one of the largest retailers of new, used and collectible comics in Canada, with loyal customers dating back more than 20 years. They shifted their focus to comics and closed their N.D.G. store about 15 years ago when the book market slumped.

Stock says she’s seeing a shift back toward print, both for books and comics, that is also evidenced in growing sales of printed books worldwide as the popularity of Kindle and other e-readers declines.

“If we can get through this year, I think we can make it,” she said. “Book sales are getting better, and comic book sales, which had bottomed out, are climbing. People are seeking that tactile experience.”

As customers who grew up on superhero fare have matured and evolved, so have comic books, branching out to a wide variety of genres that include murder mysteries and romantic comedies. Ms. Marvel, about a New Jersey high school girl of Pakistani descent who suddenly attains superhero powers, is the first comic to have a Muslim headliner; it was a smash hit, indicative of publishers’ willingness to reflect a more diverse society, noted store clerk David Villeneuve. Acclaimed writers like Margaret Atwood and Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk have entered the graphic-novel genre.

For customers like Sean Gallagher, it’s the ambience and the availability of new genres, many chosen for him by store employees, that have kept him coming back for 20 years.

“I like the convenience, and the atmosphere,” says Gallagher, a 42-year-old computer designer who fell in love with comics at the age of nine.

Gallagher is also picking up titles like Looney Tunes and Teen Titans for his seven-year-old son, aiding in the store’s marketing strategy of “getting them addicted.” Because comic books are written as serial novels, with storylines spanning multiple editions, once a reader has read one, they want to see how it ends.

“They find a used comic at $1 — it gets them hooked,” Stock says. Soon, hopefully, they’re following a few titles a month.

For Von Allan, both a customer and a comic-book creator and graphic novelist, much of the store’s charm lies in its willingness to support and promote lesserknown titles outside of the mainstream, including his own.

“A store that is willing to lend a hand and help rookies get started is rare,” Allan said. “And Paul’s been doing that for decades. I can’t stress that enough. For a young artist starting out, it means the world. We need more stores like this, and I’m saying that as a friend, customer and comic creator.”

The last few years have been hard on the Stocks. Betty walks with two canes, but still comes in daily. Paul, 67, got past a bout of flesh-eating disease several years ago, then suffered a stroke about five years back that left him partially paralyzed. He still comes in for a few hours a day, and works from home.

“If this store closes, he would turn into a vegetable,” Betty says. “So will I. I’m not looking for that.”

Across the street at Capitaine Québec, neither is owner Charlie Vaccaro. With three comic stores in a three-block radius downtown, the close-knit competition is good for business, he said, bringing in customers from all over Montreal.

“If Astro closes, it might be short-term gain for me in terms of getting a few reserve-list customers, but … it would be long-term pain,” he said.

After half a lifetime serving book lovers and comic-book addicts, Betty says it’s the fun she would miss.

“Generally, the comic-books community is a very nice community,” she said. “We’re nice, and a bit weird.”

A link to Astro Books’ crowdfunding page is available at their website, astrolib.com.

A store that is willing to lend a hand and help rookies get started is rare. And Paul’s been doing that for decades. I can’t stress that enough.

Let’s capitalize on AI revolution

Montreal is welcoming leading technologists to the city this week for the C2 (commerce/creativity) conference, just as the city could be on the verge of becoming an international hub for Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology. Capitalizing on this brewing revolution will require governments to drastically alter traditional modus operandi, loosening their grip on the entrepreneurial class and suppressing nationalistic impulses.

Advocating for massive government spending with little restraint admittedly deviates from the tenor of these columns, but the AI business is unlike any other before it. Having leaders acting as fervent advocates for the industry is crucial; resisting the coming technological tide is, as the Borg would say, futile.

The roughly 250 AI researchers who call Montreal home are not simply part of a niche industry. Quebec’s francophone character and Montreal’s multilingual citizenry are certainly factors favouring the development of language technology, but there’s ample opportunity for endeavours with broader applications.

AI isn’t simply a technological breakthrough; it is the technological revolution. In the coming decades, modern computing will transform all industries, eliminating human inefficiencies and maximizing opportunities for innovation and growth — regardless of the ethical dilemmas that will inevitably arise.

“By 2020, we’ll have computers that are powerful enough to simulate the human brain,” said (in 2009) futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, a seminal 2006 book that has inspired a generation of AI technologists. Kurzweil’s projections are not science fiction but perhaps conservative, as some forms of AI already effectively replace many human cognitive functions. “By 2045, we’ll have expanded the intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billion-fold. That will be the singularity.”

Continue reading Let’s capitalize on AI revolution

Montreal to become world centre of AI

Montreal is positioning itself to become a world centre of artificial intelligence with impressive amounts of cash flowing into academia, public-private partnerships, research labs and startups. Bertrand Marotte reports on some of the big brains behind the suddenly hot trend.

PHOTOS: JOHN MAHONEY Jean-François Gagné is co-founder and chief executive officer of Element AI, an artificial intelligence startup factory launched in Montreal last year. “We want to be part of that conversation — shaping what AI is going to look like,” he says.

It might seem like an ambitious goal, but key players in Montreal’s rapidly growing artificial intelligence sector are intent on transforming the city into a Silicon Valley of AI.

Certainly, the flurry of activity these days indicates that AI in the city is on a roll. Impressive amounts of cash have been flowing into academia, public-private partnerships, research labs and startups active in AI in the Montreal area.

And hopes are high that a threeday conference starting May 24 — AI Forum — will help burnish Montreal’s reputation as one of the world’s emerging AI advanced research centres and top talent pools in the suddenly very hot tech trend.

Topics and issues on the agenda include the evolution of AI in Montreal and the transformative impact AI can have on business, industry and the economy.

For example, researchers at Microsoft Corp. have successfully developed a computing system able to decipher conversational speech as accurately as humans do. The technology makes the same, or fewer, errors than professional transcribers and could be a huge boon to major users of transcription services like law firms and the courts.

Setting the goal of attaining the critical mass of a Silicon Valley is “a nice point of reference,” said tech entrepreneur Jean-François Gagné, co-founder and chief executive officer of Element AI, an artificial intelligence startup factory launched last year.

“It’s ambitious,” allowed Gagné, one of the keynote speakers at the AI Forum, held in partnership with the annual C2 Montréal international gabfest.

The idea is to create a “fluid, dynamic ecosystem” in Montreal where AI research, startup, investment and commercialization activities all mesh productively together, said Gagné, who founded Element with researcher Nicolas Chapados and Université de Montréal deep learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio.

Continue reading Montreal to become world centre of AI

A puzzling and addictive trend

From the Montreal Gazette, Saturday, Oct 22nd

Escape rooms are popping up all over city, offering a 3D gaming experience

It’s something you don’t get to do in everyday life that’s more exciting than video games or movies . … It’s more tactile.

From page A1 The fate of the world is on the line and the clock is ticking down. A zombie plague is wiping major cities off the map and you’re pinned down in the one lab that contains the cure.

PHOTOS: DARIO AYALA From left, friends Charles Blanc, Alexis Dupire and Clemence Bergier look for clues in a 1930s mafia-themed escape room at Question Games.


Running out of time means certain doom for all mankind. But if you can find the hidden cure and make your way out of the lab in time, you will get bragging rights over everyone who couldn’t hack it — playing one of Montreal’s latest escape rooms, an entertainment trend taking the city by storm.

The general idea behind the experience is simple, even if escaping can be complex. Groups of two or more friends or colleagues in a team-building capacity get locked in a room and solve puzzles to find their way out, with a time limit of about an hour.

Locales offer different scenarios to keep up with demand, with an average price tag of about $25 per person to play. At Question Games for example, players choose between several “missions,” including the quest for the cure described above.

“It’s pretty immersive,” says Gabriel Lawson, 22, prior to attempting a Question Games mission. Originally from British Columbia, Lawson has visited rooms all over the continent.

“It’s something you don’t get to do in everyday life that’s more exciting than video games or movies . … It’s more tactile. You get to do stuff with your body instead of just staring at a screen.”

Not restricted to North America, escape rooms originated in Japan back in 2007. They made their way to Montreal two years ago, with Échappe-Toi opening in October 2014. The operation wasn’t alone for long, with Find the Key, A/ Maze, and Obsidem having started construction at around the same time.

“We probably now have 14 different companies in Montreal and the suburbs,” says Emmanuel de Gouvello, Échappe-Toi’s co-founder. “We’re still growing.”

De Gouvello is not just referencing the industry, but his company, too. Another Échappe-Toi has since opened in France, with a third to follow in Boston under a different name: Dasuru, which translates from Japanese to “escape.”

The new name in Boston was to be expected for language reasons, but that’s not all that is changing, according to de Gouvello. Some of the most successful escape rooms deliver different experiences depending on the market.

Échappe-Toi is even starting a franchising program next year. Such is the nature of the rapidly expanding industry, featuring few barriers to entry, with first-generation rooms requiring minimal startup capital. However, a lot of word of mouth is needed, not to mention motivation, especially at the start.

“The small weeks were 60 hours and the big weeks were probably 80-85,” says de Gouvello, who had been working as a business coach when Échappe-Toi opened. He eventually had to choose between the two.

That those 80-hour weeks haven’t stopped altogether is a testament to the success of ÉchappeToi and de Gouvello’s passion for his business, which he says fits him perfectly. It’s a recurring theme among founders, many of whom were inspired to start one of their own by playing elsewhere.

“It’s sort of a dream to work in this environment. You get to watch people come and work together and have fun doing something you created,” says Question Games cofounder Matthew Diamond.

As the number of locations increases, each escape-room company naturally tries to raise the bar. However, they don’t necessarily see each other as threats to one another. True fans of the genre are going to try as many different escape rooms as they can. As long as the overall quality stays high, owners stay happy.

“Right now, you can open a small room with keys and locks, call it an escape game, and you’re going to have customers,” says Alexander Reverse, the CEO of A/Maze. “However, people who are playing for the first time won’t want to do it anymore, and they won’t know to go where the quality is much better.”

To help separate them from the pack, Obsidem has added adventure games to their offerings. There, actors may help to further immerse players in a larger-scale environment, where, for instance, the goal isn’t to escape, but extract a separate group of prisoners. In fact, it’s got to the point where “escape room” is almost a misnomer.

De Gouvello compares the games to movies. He has used actors since almost the start, for the most part sticking to the tried and true formula of pitting players locked in a room against the clock. To keep things fresh, puzzles are updated once a year. The actors help, too.

Whereas in a movie actors have lines, Échappe-Toi gives theirs more leeway to move stories along. Groups playing the game each enjoy different dynamics. As a result, their experience interacting with the environment, actors and all, can be just as unique.

“The actor is supposed to be able to improvise something to get to an outcome, which will translate into the players being able to progress,” says de Gouvello.

Échappe-Toi’s games still have only about a three per cent success rate, so progress doesn’t always mean escaping altogether. That’s not the point, though. It’s not just about getting out. It’s about playing out a real-life 3D computer game.

“It’s the next dimension, where you can touch things and take away experiences,” Reverse says.

It’s at the very least an escape away from reality, even if only for an hour. As far as ways to pass the time go, it beats an actual zombie apocalypse, hands down. And it’s only getting better and more realistic.

“As technology becomes more readily available … there’s not much you can’t do,” Diamond says. “And we keep wanting to add and enhance that experience for people when they play.”

So the next time you and your friends are locked in a room, you just might be the last line of defence against a zombie apocalypse, finding a cure to fight a deadly virus, or attempting a daring prison escape … the possibilities are endless.

Congrès Boréal May 8-10

Boreal 2Congrès Boréal is at the Espresso hotel this weekend.

GoH are: Natasha Beaulieu, Patrice Cazeault, Sébastien Chartrand, Esther Rochon, Patrick Senécal, Jo Walton

Panellists include a veritable who’s who of Québec authors, editors, artists, and publishers.

The Aurora Award for best novel written in French is awarded in conjunction with the Prix Boréal.

The following events are FREE:

Vendredi : ouverture en soirée à la Maison des écrivains de l’UNEQ (3492, avenue Laval) de 18 h 30 à 21 h

 Samedi : lecture de Sébastien Chartrand (salle Gatineau, hôtel Espresso, 1005, rue Guy) de 11 h à 12 h (avec le soutien de l’UNEQ)

Concours de la meilleure formule (salle Saint-François, hôtel Espresso, 1005, rue Guy) de 13 h à 14 h (dans le cadre des 24 heures de science)

Lecture d’Esther Rochon (salle Nicolet, hôtel Espresso, 1005, rue Guy) de 19 h à 20 h (avec le soutien de l’UNEQ)

Dimanche : lecture de Natasha Beaulieu (salle Gatineau), hôtel Espresso, 1005, rue Guy) de 11 h à 12 h (avec le soutien de l’UNEQ)

Nota Bene : Les activités en accès libre ne donnent pas accès au reste du congrès.