A Trump Dividend for Canada? Maybe in Its A.I. Industry


By STEVE LOHRMAY 9, 2017 

www.nytimes.com

 

Amir Moravej, an Iranian computer engineer in Montreal, quietly worked last year on building software to help people navigate the Canadian immigration system. He saw it as a way for others to avoid the same immigration travails he suffered a few years earlier.

Then came the American presidential election. “Trump accelerated everything,” said Mr. Moravej, 33, the chief executive of a software start-up named Botler AI.

With immigration taking center stage in American politics and elsewhere, Botler AI began putting more resources into building a chatbot tailored to one of Canada’s immigration programs. On Wednesday, the start-up plans to announce that Yoshua Bengio, a research pioneer in artificial intelligence and director of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, is joining the fledgling company as a strategy adviser.

Mr. Bengio is adding his intellectual firepower to ease the way for what could become a migration of high-tech talent. Canada stands to benefit from the American political climate and the Trump administration’s efforts — stalled in court so far — to sharply restrict travel into the United States from six predominantly Muslim nations. After Mr. Trump’s election, applications to Canada for student and temporary visas surged.

“If we look back 10 years from now, I’d be surprised if the Trump effect didn’t show up in the data,” said Joshua Gans, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Immigration is a linchpin in Canada’s economic policy. One-fifth of the country’s population of 36 million is foreign-born. Canada has dozens of provincial and federal programs, but a priority is placed on highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs, often with points assigned for specialized expertise, education and language proficiency.

Trends in actual immigration will take time to show up conclusively, but the early evidence of a Trump effect is most apparent in a field like artificial intelligence, where Canada has been at the forefront of innovation and is seeking to build a large A.I. industry.

Not only are Canadian A.I. start-ups like Botler AI now building on interest in immigration and on homegrown talent, but major American technology companies, including Google, Microsoft and IBM, have also been adding to their A.I. research teams in Canada.

The ride-hailing service Uber announced on Monday that it was opening a branch of its advanced technologies group in Toronto, the company’s first outside the United States. The lab, which will develop self-driving car technology, will be led by Raquel Urtasun, an expert in computer vision at the University of Toronto.

Canada has well-funded programs intended not only to lure A.I. experts to the country, but also to persuade A.I. researchers, educated at Canadian universities, to remain in Canada rather than depart for Silicon Valley, as so many have done before.

The nation’s policy makers also want to persuade expatriate engineers and entrepreneurs to return to Canada — and the political climate in the United States has influenced some to do so.

Ross Intelligence, an A.I. start-up founded in Toronto, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area two years ago for the business and funding opportunities in the tech world’s hotbed.

But last month, Ross, whose software can read through thousands of legal documents and rank relevant cases for lawyers, opened an office in Toronto. Five members of its team, including senior engineers and two co-founders, are moving from San Francisco to Canada. The group includes two Canadians, a Brazilian, a Belgian and an American.

The Toronto outpost, said Jimoh Ovbiagele, a co-founder and chief technology officer of Ross, “allows us to really recruit from the global talent pool.”

Mr. Ovbiagele, one of the Canadians who is relocating to Toronto, said Ross had received dozens of inquiries from international students concerned about the immigration risk of working in America. Ross, he said, recently hired engineers who were international students and graduates of Princeton, Cooper Union and the University of Toronto.

Another technologist making the move to Canada from Silicon Valley is Maxime Chevalier-Boisvert, 31, who returned to Montreal a few weeks ago after working for Apple for 13 months. There were other considerations, she said, but “the election of Trump did play a role” in convincing her that she would prefer to live in Canada.

So when an opportunity to work at Mr. Bengio’s A.I. institute in Montreal became available recently, Ms. Chevalier-Boisvert did not hesitate. Her new salary is about a third of her income at Apple.

Then again, Ms. Chevalier-Boisvert observed, her rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Montreal is less than a third of the monthly rent she paid for a one-bedroom apartment in Sunnyvale, Calif. And Montreal, she added, is a cosmopolitan city.

“Living in Montreal is pretty good,” Ms. Chevalier-Boisvert said.

Back at Botler AI, a lot of work remains — including landing funding and figuring out a business plan. But the addition of Mr. Bengio is a sign that the start-up needs to be taken seriously.

Mr. Bengio, in an interview, said he was joining the start-up partly because Botler AI’s technology fits neatly with research underway at his A.I. institute. What’s more, he added, the company’s work around immigration could “help a lot of people.”
Correction: May 9, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated Yoshua Bengio’s title at Botler AI. He will be a strategy adviser, not co-founder and chie