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Siegfried Usal, vice-president of strategy, research and technology with Thales’ Canadian operation said the new Montreal-based lab will develop AI applications for use by its airline, air traffic, satellite rail military and infrastructure customers.Getty Images/iStockphoto

French industrial giant Thales SA has become the latest in a slew of foreign multinationals to open an artificial intelligence research lab in Montreal.

The company, which employs 1,800 people in Canada, is announcing Tuesday it will open a lab in Montreal early next year in collaboration with the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA), with plans to hire 50 AI scientists by mid-2019. Thales' AI-related research is concentrated in Paris, where it employs 120 AI research scientists and developers. The company currently employs 15 AI professionals at its operations in Toronto and Quebec City.

"We want to create new technologies based on AI that we can industrialize in our verticals and sell to the world," said Siegfried Usal, vice-president of strategy, research and technology with Thales' Canadian operation, which generates $500-million in annual revenue from such ventures as building mass transit signalling technology and control systems for business jets. He said the lab will develop AI applications for use by its airline, air traffic, satellite rail military and infrastructure customers. "What we propose…is to bring AI to the physical world."

Thales is the fourth foreign giant since August to announce a new AI lab in Montreal, home to Yoshua Bengio, a pioneering AI academic with University of Montreal and a driving force behind the development of the city's AI-focused institutions, including MILA and the Institute of Data Valorization (IVADO). Last month, Facebook hired renowned McGill University professor Joelle Pineau to head its lab in the city, and her colleague Doina Precup was hired to lead a Montreal lab for DeepMind Technologies Ltd, the British AI company owned by Google parent Alphabet Inc. Samsung Electronics' Advanced Institute of Technology opened an AI lab at the University of Montreal in August. Microsoft Corp. this year bought Montreal AI startup Maluuba and backed local AI startup Element AI in its fundraising.

Recent breakthroughs in such areas of AI as "deep learning" and "reinforcement learning" – much of it generated by academics either trained or based in Canada – have turned the field into one of the hottest areas of technology, enabling machines to recognize patterns and make predictions based on vast troves of data. Many global tech giants have invested heavily in AI – hiring up many of the leading academics in Canada and elsewhere – in the hopes of developing leadership in what is expected to become a dominant, general-purpose technology.

Thales already uses AI for a range of applications, including helping air-traffic managers more effectively manage the skies and suggesting efficient flight plans for aircraft to help operators reduce fuel costs. The company recently built a control centre in Mexico City to help police more swiftly gather images of crimes in motion to reduce their response times. Thales already supports both IVADO and the Vector Institute, a new AI-focused research organization in Toronto.

Mr. Bengio said while the recent moves by multinationals to open AI labs in Montreal helps to bolster the reputation of the city and Canada as a global AI hub, "the negative is that I don't think that it is by these companies that Canada will emerge as a world leader in AI. Those foreign companies might be doing research here [but] the products are going to be manufactured or sold from elsewhere, and the profits for those products will be taxed in other countries, so it's not really going to help Canada make the transition that's probably going to happen in the next decade due to automation and AI.

"The only way we'll become a real world leader in this field is if we have enough Canadian companies becoming strong players."

Benji Sucher is the chief operating officer of Layer 6 AI, a Toronto-based company that uses deep learning to help solve enterprise business challenges. In this video he discusses the deep learning revolution, how companies of all sizes can leverage the vast amounts of data available, as well as Canada's leading position in AI research and development on the global stage.

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