Creating a new digital industry

Panel discussion will focus on turning informatics and AI into jobs

Montreal is a growing hub for artificial intelligence (AI) and informatics. Last year Facebook announced it was opening a new research lab in the city. That same year Microsoft announced it was buying Montreal-based AI company Maluuba and planned to double its size within two years. 

The AI industry worldwide is expected to grow rapidly over the next decade, from $7.3B in revenues in 2018 to $90B in 2025. With 250 researchers in the field and 9,000 students studying related programs, Montreal is well placed to take advantage of that growth.

It is no surprise then that Montreal was chosen to be the first Canadian host of the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility (INCF) Congress in August. The congress will bring together some of the world’s leading experts in AI and neuroinformatics — the science of information processing applied to neuroscience data. The local organizing committee is chaired by Alan Evans, researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University (The Neuro) and co-director of the Ludmer Center for Neuroinformatics and Mental Health. Evans leads a number of international and national neuroinformatics initiatives, including the Canadian Open Neuroscience Platform.

Neuroscience produces massive amounts of data, everything from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to cognitive test results. Within this data, scientists can find meaningful patterns that lead to better diagnoses, or clues to how neurological diseases progress. But to find these patterns the data must be properly stored, analyzed and distributed, making neuroinformatics an important field for the future of neuroscience and medicine. Scientists at The Neuro and the Ludmer Center are using and refining neuroinformatics, establishing best practices and sharing them with the scientific community. In 2016, The Neuro established the Tanenbaum Open Science Institute and adopted an open science policy to more widely share research data for the advancement of neuroscience.

Neuroinformatics has the potential to create high quality jobs and economic activity in Montreal. During INCF 2018 a panel will talk about how AI and neuroinformatics expertise can lead to new tech startups. Joining that panel is Sonia Israel, who in 2017 with fellow McGill graduates David Benrimoh, Robert Fratila, and Kelly Perlman founded Aifred Health, a start-up that uses AI to help physicians make better treatment decisions in mental health care.

While mental health has gotten a lot more attention in recent years, finding help for problems like depression can still be incredibly difficult, and often times the care received is not suited to the needs of the individual. Aifred Health develops algorithms to sort through terabytes of clinical data, to determine the best course of treatment based on a patient’s unique characteristics. While depression is the company’s focus right now, the team plans to expand into other psychiatric disorders.

Montreal provides young start-up companies with many advantages, according to Israel, including a low cost of living and the presence of several leading research institutes and universities, which attract top talent from around the world.

Israel says the pace of AI development has been enhanced by developers adopting open science principles, by writing open-source code and uploading paper pre-prints.

 “The proximity of expertise in both informatics and life sciences provides for a synergistic environment for translating clinical innovations into practice,” she says. “We also have a great startup community with tons of resources and opportunities for entrepreneurs.”

Montreal’s ability to attract an international conference such as INCF is also a major advantage, according to Israel.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to connect, to share, and to learn about other people’s missions,” she says. “Meeting passionate individuals, in any context, mentally rejuvenates and drives me further to pursue what I find meaningful.”

“Sometimes, toiling away at a narrow topic, in industry and academia alike, can make you lose sight of what’s really important. Why are you doing all of this, really? I think it’s important to stay mindful of our ultimate objectives. For me, conferences are a great reminder of that. And if you feel stuck, conferences are also a plush breeding ground for fresh ideas and perspectives!”

The business panel will take place at 4:20pm on August 9 in the Leacock Building on McGill University’s main campus.

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The Montreal Neurological Institute & Hospital is a McGill University research and teaching institute; delivering the highest quality of care to patients, as part of the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre. The MNI is proud to be a Killam Institution, supported by the Killam Trusts.