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NVIDIA is the latest foreign technology giant to open an AI lab in Toronto

Silicon Valley computer chip giant NVIDIA Corp. on Wednesday became the latest foreign tech giant to establish an artificial intelligence lab in Canada, hiring University of Toronto computer science assistant professor Sanja Fidler to lead the effort.

The company, which has about one-quarter of its 50 downtown Toronto employees focused on AI, plans to at least double the size of its operation, with most of the new hires tasked “to work specifically on pie-in-the-sky kinds of AI research,” said Rev Lebaredian, an NVIDIA vice president.

Ms. Fidler, a Slovenian-born academic, will devote about half her time to NVIDIA and the balance to supervising graduate students at U of T, where she has gained a reputation as one of the bright lights of the computer science department, winning several research and faculty awards, including a nod as professor of the year in 2014-15 from the faculty’s student union.

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She also gained notoriety along with fellow U of T researchers for using AI to help people determine if their outfits were stylish and also to generate Christmas songs based on computer analysis of holiday images. Ms. Fidler was not available for an interview.

NVIDIA, best known as a graphics processing powerhouse in the computer gaming industry, was one of the earliest Silicon Valley companies to shift its business to serve the burgeoning AI industry, providing a platform and tools to serve the market for self-driving cars, autonomous robots and super-computing applications.

But while NVIDIA had emerged as a leading backer of Toronto’s teeming AI community by donating $5-million last year to the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, other foreign companies have made bigger splashes by establishing or announcing plans to open AI labs in Canada, including Facebook Inc., Uber Technologies, Microsoft Corp., Google parent Alphabet Inc., Thales SA, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and LG Electronics. Royal Bank of Canada has a sizeable AI research lab network in Canada and Toronto-Dominion Bank this year paid $100-million for Toronto startup Layer 6 to expand its AI efforts.

By contrast, NVDIA’s AI presence in the city was relatively muted until now. The company set up in Toronto with its 2015 purchase of gaming technology company TransGaming and had roughly 12 AI researchers among its local staff of 50. But Mr. Lebaredian said the longer-term plan was to “expand our office here to include researchers and other professionals working within the AI community … given the burgeoning AI scene and the significance of University of Toronto. This is an important place to be.”

Toronto earned its place on the global AI map thanks largely to research pioneer Geoffrey Hinton, who was wooed to move to Canada from the United States three decades ago to teach at U of T. Other pioneering AI academics, Rich Sutton at University of Alberta and Yoshua Bengio at University of Montreal, also eschewed opportunities in the United States to set down roots in Canada, establishing leadership in the AI field that made Edmonton and Montreal hotbeds for AI research when there was little interest in the field.

Federal innovation minister Navdeep Bains warmly greeted NVIDIA’s expansion and addition of “well-paying jobs for Canadians” in a statement provided through the company. “Our government welcomes this investment and is proud to partner with NVIDIA as we continue advancing our machine learning knowledge.”

The NVIDIA announcement came in the same day Royal Bank of Canada CEO David McKay said Canadian firms needed to band together to counter he threat to heir business from foreign data-centred software giants.

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