MONTREAL — In a sun-lit lecture space at Ecole Polytechnique, Joelle Pineau explained how a machine can create a recipe from a photo of a tourtiere.
It’s not easy as pie, but rather the fruit of 12 months of experimentation at Facebook’s new artificial intelligence lab, which she heads up in Montreal.
“I would like the robot that goes with it and then makes the recipe,” joked Pineau, an associate professor at McGill University.
Facebook’s lab has already expanded to 20 specialists from four since its launch in September 2017, with plans to move to a bigger facility come January. Microsoft Corp. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. have both launched Montreal-based AI labs in the past two years, and aim to hire scores more researchers in the next year or so.
It’s not just Montreal’s AI sector that’s booming. A mix of cutting-edge tech clusters, real estate growth and old mainstays like tourism and shipping are transforming the city into an economic hot spot after decades of battling a frosty business image.
Regional gross domestic product grew 3.5 per cent in 2017, according to Statistics Canada, outpacing Toronto and Vancouver as Montreal enjoyed its biggest growth spurt in more than 10 years. Unemployment has hovered at around six per cent for the past 12 months, remaining near all-time lows.
Meanwhile, foreign direct investment surpassed $2 billion in 2017, a new record that marks a 50 per cent increase over 2016 and a 100 per cent jump from 2015.
“There’s definitely a buzz around Montreal, especially the high-tech sectors,” said Christian Bernard, chief economist with Montreal International, an economic development agency.
Up to 75 per cent of foreign direct investment last year went toward high-tech sectors such as gaming, visual effects and aerospace as well as life sciences and health technology, he said.
“The technology is very broad, and the talent can move around from one area to another, one niche application to another,” said Universite de Montreal computer scientist and deep-learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio, who serves as scientific director of the new Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms.
Bengio cited as a key catalyst French gaming company Ubisoft Entertainment SA, which opened a small office in Montreal in 1997 that now employs 3,500 workers.
Cash has been pouring into Montreal from public and private institutions, including more than $300 million over the next five years from the federal and provincial governments to bankroll big data research at Montreal universities and foster a regional AI “super-cluster”.
Brad Henderson, chief executive of Sotheby’s International Realty Canada, said mortgage stress tests and higher interest rates haven’t dampened Montreal’s real estate market, which he called the healthiest in Canada.
The city’s $1 million-plus real estate sales increased 19 per cent year over year in July and August, and they’re poised “to set new records to the end of 2018,” according to a Sotheby’s report in September.
Quebec’ political situation has calmed investor fears, he added.
“Montreal’s always kind of had a bit of a political overhang,” Henderson said, “but the concerns about separatism have largely dissipated, and that in our opinion has contributed to the steady growth that we’ve seen in Montreal.”
Montreal’s port continues to underpin the regional economy, as the year-old free-trade deal between Canada and the European Union boosts container shipping and prompts a hiring spree at the docks, according to port officials.
Container imports increased 7.8 per cent to nearly 4.33 million tonnes in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period in 2017, with the bulk of that traffic coming from Europe.
Tourism is also on the rise, with Trudeau International Airport welcoming more than 11 million foreign passengers in the first eight months of 2018 for a 6.9 per cent year-over-year gain, according to Tourisme Montreal.
However, the same features Montrealers cite as strengths can detract from the city’s sheen as well.
In 2016, median household incomes in Montreal climbed more quickly than in many metropolitan areas, but they remained among the lowest of any major city in Canada at $61,790, according to StatCan figures.
High employment points to a severe thirst for a bigger talent pool, said Montreal Board of Trade president Michel Leblanc.
Many parts of the province are now “beyond full employment,” with a demand for more qualified workers in sectors ranging from hospitality to transportation to the tech scene, Leblanc said.
“We need to have more immigrants,” he said, one day before Quebeckers voted the Coalition Avenir Quebec to power on Oct. 1, whose leader Francois Legault has pledged to reduce immigration by 20 per cent.
One-third of Quebec’s workforce will have to be replaced in the next 10 years as the population ages, said Mia Homsy, director of the Institut du Quebec, a public policy think tank.
“It’s already starting to affect investments and production, with a direct impact on GDP,” she said.
Population growth in the Montreal census metropolitan area has been relatively slow, rising 11 per cent to 4.1 million residents between 2007 and 2017, according to StatCan. The rate lags well behind Canada’s five other biggest urban areas.
Despite its rapid growth, Montreal’s affordability is better than many of the other 10 biggest cities on the continent, said Loic Jegousse, head of cyber and IT risk with a BNP Paribas team that launched in Montreal last May.
“I myself have two teenage daughters. I used to live in Toronto, and I thought it would be wise to come to Montreal so they can actually afford a home when they grow up,” he said.
“Montreal was very sleepy for a long, long time, but now it is going through a renaissance.”
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press