Microsoft announces significant expansion of Montreal research lab, new director

Jan 23, 2018   |   Allison Linn

Geoffrey Gordon has been named Microsoft Research Montreal’s new research director. Photo by Nadia Zheng.

Microsoft plans to significantly expand its Montreal research lab and has hired a renowned artificial intelligence expert, Geoffrey Gordon, to be the lab’s new research director.

The company said Wednesday that it hopes to double the size of Microsoft Research Montreal within the next two years, to as many as 75 technical experts. The expansion comes as Montreal is becoming a worldwide hub for groundbreaking work in the fields of machine learning and deep learning, which are core to AI advances.

“Montreal is really one of the most exciting places in AI right now,” said Jennifer Chayes, a technical fellow and managing director of Microsoft Research New England, New York City and Montreal.

In a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella discussed Microsoft’s ongoing investment in Canada and the expansion of the Montreal lab, including Gordon’s hiring.  

Chayes said Gordon, currently a professor of machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University, was a natural choice for the job in part because he’s interested in both the foundational AI research that addresses fundamental AI challenges and the applied work that can quickly find its way into mainstream use.

“We want to be doing the research that will be infusing AI into Microsoft products today and tomorrow, and Geoff’s research really spans that,” she said. “He’ll be able to help us improve our products and he’ll also be laying the foundation for AI to do much more than is possible today.”

Jennifer Chayes, technical fellow and managing director of Microsoft Research New England, New York City and Montreal.

Chayes also noted that Gordon’s broad and deep AI expertise will be a major asset to the lab. She noted that Gordon is an expert in reinforcement learning, in which systems learn through trial and error, and he’s also done groundbreaking work in areas such as robotics and natural language processing. The ability to combine all those areas of expertise will be key to developing sophisticated AI systems in the future.

“Given that we want a very broad AI lab, Geoff is the ideal person to lead it, and to create the fundamental research that underlies the next generation of AI,” she said.

Gordon said he’s especially interested in creating AI systems that have what we think of as long-term thinking: the ability to come up with a coherent plan to solve a problem or to take multiple actions based on clues it gets along the way. That’s the kind of thing that comes easily to people but is currently rudimentary in most AI systems.

Over the last few years, AI systems have gotten very good at individual tasks, like recognizing images or comprehending words in a conversation, thanks to a combination of improved data, computing power and algorithms.

Now, researchers including Gordon are working on ways to combine those skills to create systems that can augment people’s work in more sophisticated ways. For example, a system that could accurately read clues based on what it is seeing and hearing to anticipate when it would be useful to step in and help would be much more valuable than one that requires a person to ask for help with a specific task when needed.

“We have, in some cases, superhuman performance in recognizing patterns, and in very restricted domains we get superhuman performance in planning ahead,” he said. “But it’s surprisingly difficult to put those two things together – to get an AI to learn a concept and then build a chain of reasoning based on that learned concept.”

Microsoft began developing its research presence in Montreal a year ago, when it acquired the deep learning startup Maluuba.

The Microsoft Research team in Montreal has already made groundbreaking advances in AI disciplines that are key to the type of systems Gordon imagines. That includes advances in machine reading comprehension – the ability to read a document and provide information about it in a plainspoken way – and in methods for teaching AI systems to do complex tasks, such as by dividing large tasks into small tasks that multiple AI agents can handle.

Gordon said he was drawn to the new position both because of the work the team in Montreal is doing and the opportunity to collaborate with the broader Montreal AI community.

“Research has always been about standing on the shoulders of giants, to borrow a phrase from a giant – and it’s even more so in the current age,” Gordon said.

The city has become a hotbed for AI advances thanks to a strong academic and research presence, as well as government funding commitments.

Yoshua Bengio, an AI pioneer who heads the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, said Gordon’s presence and the Microsoft lab’s expansion will help continue to build the momentum that the Montreal AI community has seen in recent years. He noted that Gordon’s area of focus, on AI systems that can learn to do more complex tasks, is complementary to the work he and others in the community also are pursuing.

“It’s one of the strengths of Montreal,” said Bengio, who is also an AI advisor to Microsoft.

Joelle Pineau, an associate professor of computer science at McGill University and director of Montreal’s Facebook AI Research Lab, said she was thrilled to hear Gordon would be joining the Montreal AI ecosystem.

“There is no doubt that the Montreal AI community will be deeply enriched by his presence here,” Pineau said.

Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and economic development, said he was looking forward to seeing the work that Gordon and Microsoft Research Montreal will produce.

“I am pleased that our government’s investment in innovation and skills continues to position Canada as a world-leading destination for AI companies and impressive researchers like Geoff Gordon,” he said.

The expansion of the Montreal lab is part of Microsoft’s long history of investing in international research hubs, including labs in the U.S., Asia, India and Cambridge, United Kingdom. Chayes said the company’s international presence has helped it attract and retain some of the world’s best researchers in AI and other fields, and it also has helped ensure that the company’s AI systems reflect a diversity of experiences and cultures.

For example, Chayes said the fact that Montreal is a bilingual city could help inform the company’s work in areas such as translation and speech recognition.

“It’s a culture where you go back and forth between two languages. That’s a very interesting environment in which to develop tools for natural language understanding,” she said.

The French version of this blog post can be found on the Microsoft News Center Canada.


Allison Linn is a senior writer at Microsoft. Follow her on Twitter.