Google Is Stepping Up Its Giving for Artificial Intelligence. Here's a Closer Look

There’s a familiar pattern emerging among a number of corporations with an interest in using artificial intelligence to expand into new areas or become more profitable. And philanthropy is a key part of the picture. Whether it’s car companies like Toyota, or any number of tech giants, corporations are getting very tight with research universities, with grants flowing ever more widely. 

The details vary, with some acting aggressively and others more collaboratively, but they tend to involve companies developing strong ties in centers of top academic talent, establishing a company presence and awarding academic grantmaking.

In all cases, however, the goal is to plant a foothold firmly in the expanding field of artificial intelligence in ways that will maximize profit and prevent competitors from leaving them in the dust. 


The latest example comes from Google, one of the biggest players in AI research. The company recently announced a $3.36 million grant to a team of faculty operating at the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA), led by AI pioneer Yoshua Bengio. 

The grant is an extension of previous funding to Bengio, whose team is at the core of a growing cluster of AI research in Montreal. The Canadian government previously announced it was investing $200 million CAD to three Montreal universities working in AI and big data.

Meanwhile, Google is building its own artificial intelligence lab in Montreal, to be run by Hugo Larochelle, formerly of Twitter, who also got his Ph.D. from—you guessed it—the University of Montreal. The goal is to build a “sizable team” inside the corporation’s Montreal office. You have to imagine a large number of recruits for the Google office will come from Montreal universities. 

A certain amount of crossover between universities, startups, and large anchor companies isn’t unusual when cities become hubs, as Montreal has. But there has been some concern about the gusto with which corporations have been vacuuming up talent. In one case involving Uber and Carnegie Mellon, the company set up shop nearby, a “partnership” that turned into the company hiring away nearly the entire robotics department. Big companies are similarly absorbing talent from smaller AI startups. 

It's hard to blame the researchers tempted to walk away from their professorships, since it’s an exciting and lucrative time to be working on artificial intelligence in a corporate environment. Machine learning technology and/or robotics seem to be working their way into virtually every area of commerce, and researchers get the chance to put their findings immediately to work on a large scale.

But there’s a mounting concern that so much brilliance in the field is leaving academia to do proprietary work aimed at company profits instead of teaching, working on other pressing research problems, or safeguarding against potential abuses. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the rise of tech companies luring away computer science Ph.D.s and the concerns that follow.

Related: More Concern From Silicon Valley Donors About the Risks of Artificial Intelligence

Companies like Google cite research grants like those to MILA to show they are strengthening academia. But does a few million in grants offset the siphoning away of talent? Top artificial intelligence students are potentially worth far more than that to a company’s bottom line.

At least in Montreal, however, you don’t have to worry about one researcher at the center of it all. Yoshua Bengio says he’s not leaving the academic life. As he told VentureBeat:

“That’s who I am,” he said, “that’s the choice I made that fits with my values, and I don’t need to get the millions, I’m fine. My salary is very good, and I care more about how what I can do could have a positive impact for science, humanity, and for training the next generation [of researchers].”