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Report On Business Samsung to join other big players, open artificial intelligence research lab in Toronto

Samsung Electronics will open an artificial-intelligence lab in Toronto on Thursday, the latest in a slew of foreign multinationals to set up research operations in Canada.

The move is part of a broader push by the South Korean consumer-electronics giant to close the gap with Silicon Valley heavyweights that have snapped up machine-learning talent of late – including many Canadian-trained and Canadian-based researchers. Breakthroughs in image-recognition software by students of pioneering University of Toronto professor Geoffrey Hinton (now a Google employee) early this decade touched off a global race to develop self-teaching technology.

“We are coming to [AI] later, so we’re playing catch-up,” said Larry Heck, co-head of global AI research with Samsung and formerly a research director at Google. “AI in terms of a priority for [Samsung] has risen to the top.”

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The global push on AI, based largely on advances in Canada, has made Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton – where Dr. Hinton, Yoshua Bengio and Rich Sutton, all pioneers in the field, work – hot spots for talent. Facebook Inc., Uber Technologies, Microsoft Corp., Google parent Alphabet Inc. and Thales SA have set up AI labs in Canada, snapping up many of the top Canadian academics (Samsung’s separate Advanced Institute of Technology opened an AI lab at the University of Montreal last summer), while Royal Bank of Canada has built a large AI research group in Canada. They join a slew of Canadian AI startups as well as Toronto-Dominion Bank, which paid $100-million this year for Toronto startup Layer 6 to jump-start its AI efforts.

Amid the global raid on Canadian talent, the federal government last year committed $125-million to fund AI institutes to help keep researchers employed in Canada.

Samsung’s Toronto AI lab is one of three Samsung is opening this month, in addition to operations in Cambridge, England, and Moscow. That follows Samsung’s creation of AI centres in Seoul and Silicon Valley in the past six months. Samsung now has 700 AI researchers and aims to add 300 more by 2020, primarily at the new labs. The Toronto operation already has about 10 employees with plans to reach 30 by year’s end and keep growing.

Samsung plans for the Toronto lab, located in the MaRS complex, to strike strategic partnerships with U of T and the University of Waterloo. It will focus on the data intelligence, natural-language understanding and computer vision to advance Samsung’s early work on AI – including its personal-assistant platform, Bixby. The goal, Mr. Heck said, is to get its products, including televisions, appliances and smartphones, to interact with users – and one another – “in an intelligent way so they know each other, they know you and they put you at the centre of this interaction” by responding better to user touch and gestures.

The Toronto lab will be led by Dr. Sven Dickinson, the former head of computer science at U of T. Two other early hires are Tim Capes, a former senior Apple Inc. engineer specializing in text-to-speech translation, and Leila Pishdad, a top data scientist at RBC.

Some Toronto AI-startup chief executives said they weren’t worried about a new rival for AI talent. “It validates the work we’ve been doing,” said Stephen Piron, co-founder of Toronto AI firm DeepLearni.ng. “They can pay more than we can and bid up on talent, but there are a lot of people who want to work at startups [such as DeepLearni.ng] and have the chance to grow” with younger companies.

Alan Bernstein, CEO with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research – which recruited Dr. Hinton from the United States to Canada 30 years ago – said large foreign firms “are an essential part of a vibrant ecosystem and essential to attract talent.“ But Derek Luke, CEO of Interaxon Inc., a Toronto-based developer of technology that can sense brain activity, worried deep-pocketed global giants will be able to outspend domestic startups for AI talent, accessing the same government R&D tax credits – as Canadian tech companies do – to create greater wealth for their home country than Canada.

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“I’d ask, what is the real benefit to Canada?” Mr. Luke said. “Given the amount Canada has invested in AI, it would be nice to see that talent building sustainable industries [here]. I believe in a free market, but I also believe in having coherent government strategies [for expanding] the wealth of this country long term. Sometimes, these two things clash. This is the case here.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Darin Graham would be heading Samsung’s Toronto AI lab. In fact, Mr. Graham is in charge of Canadian AI Operations with Samsung Research, a separate position. The Toronto AI lab will be led by Dr. Sven Dickinson.
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