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One reason more software engineers are heading to Toronto: Trump

  • The U.S. and China will now have to compete with Canada for AI talent.
  • Vector Institute wants to establish Toronto as a hub for AI innovation.
  • Machine learning and deep learning researchers at Vector Institute will work with the government and corporations to solve everyday problems.
Vector Institute founding team
Source: Johnny Guatto | University of Toronto

The Vector Institute in Toronto has only been around for a few weeks, and it is already attracting top machine learning talent from Silicon Valley.

One reason for this: President Donald Trump.

"Geopolitics is playing a part, as people contacting us have said 'I don't want to live in the U.S.,'" Jordan Jacobs, co-founder of the Vector Institute, told CNBC.

The Trump administration's recent battles over immigration have made some people feel unwelcome, and others more hesitant to move to the U.S. to do research in artificial intelligence.

"People have been emailing and calling to ask: When can I send my application?" Raquel Urtasun, co-founder of the Vector Institute, told CNBC.

The institute is an independent research facility dedicated to artificial intelligence, launched in March of this year. It's raised $180 million from both the Canadian government and corporations to create a hybrid structure, which gives researchers the flexibility to do research while pursuing commercial business opportunities like consulting.

Yet Trump isn't the only reason A.I. experts are ready to call Toronto home.

"Toronto is a dynamic city, and it is culturally diverse with over 50 percent of the people here born outside of Canada. Regardless of where you come from this is a community," said Jacobs. While the cost of living is pretty high in Toronto, it is more affordable than Silicon Valley, New York and London.

"Plus, public schools are very good and healthcare is free," said Jacobs. "I came to Canada and fell in love with the country...and I've lived all over the world," added Urtasun.

Urtasun is currently doing research into machine perception, with a focus on making autonomous vehicles safer. "Robotics, natural language, machine learning, deep learning, or what some call AI technology is our core focus," said Urtasun.

Toronto's deep roots in A.I. has brought talent to the area for years." Many of the best people in deep learning and machine learning come from University of Toronto, following in the footsteps of deep learning pioneer Geoffrey Hinton," said Jacobs. Some of Hinton's former students include the directors of A.I. research at both Facebook and Apple.

In the race to grab A.I. talent, the main players up until now have been the U.S. and China. As Canada and other countries join the competition, it could become harder for America to recruit and retain these workers. "Globally there is a shortage of researchers," said Jacobs.

Urtasun says the Institute wants to graduate the most PhD and Master's students globally and establish Toronto as the epicenter for A.I. innovation. "We identified a need for creating an ecosystem in Toronto that will allow people to stay in the area instead of going to Silicon Valley," she said.

Google recently announced it will be opening an A.I. lab in Toronto, and it is one of many companies expected to work alongside Vector in the A.I. race. "We get an endless stream of requests from founding corporate partners — banks, telecom, airlines etc. — seeking research collaborations to use machine learning for problems including healthcare, logistics issues, smart cities and computer vision," said Jacobs.

"Our biggest problem is that we don't yet have enough people to take on all of the opportunity," he added.