District 3 brass on IBM Watson AI XPrize: rise up, Montréalers


Some things never seem to change for Xavier-Henri Hervé, Sydney Swaine-Simon and Gisele Ishema-Karekezi at Concordia’s District 3 innovation centre. For two years now they (particularly Hervé) have been railing on how Montrealers aren’t thinking big enough despite having the talent to do so.

Their latest initiative is attacking these concerns in a grand way though.

District 3 is the official ambassador for Quebec for the IBM Watson AI XPrize, a huge four-year competition that will likely see over 500 teams from around the world compete for US $5 million in prize money. The prize aims to accelerate adoption of AI technologies while solving real-world challenges. It’s also an open challenge in artificial intelligence (AI): rather than set a single, universal goal for all teams, the competition will invite teams to create their own solution to a grand challenge, with annual milestone competitions in 2017 and 2018. The top three finalists will compete for the Grand Prize at TED 2020.

The first Milestone competition will happen in October 2017. Teams who make it on to the second round will be selected in January 2018.

District 3’s job is to help promote and “evangelize” the challenge by helping local teams, mostly by surrounding them with each other and local AI experts in the community. District 3’s program is providing help from organizations like Element.AI, the Real Ventures investment firm and local AI researchers. Teams can also potentially earn R&D grants and other funding.

READ ALSO: Yoshua Bengio and friends launch ‘AI startup factory’ Element.AI

And while the registration deadline for the XPrize is on January 15, 2017, District 3 has been holding prep events like this upcoming health-focused one on November 16. 

“This competition is about an end-delivery,” Hervé told MTLinTECH. “It’s about teams that create a product or service leveraging AI technology that will deliver to the market to have a social impact.”

The top three teams will gain access to a healthy cash prize while the milestone competitions in 2017 and 2018 can potentially net teams $250,000 at the IBM World of Watson Conference in Las Vegas.

No team in any of the previous XPrize’s have come from Montreal. Hervé said historically just 18 came from Canada. Eleven of those teams came in a single competition, the Carbon XPrize.

The XPrize, in fact, is a conglomerate of prizes. Past prizes included the Nokia Sensing XPrize, Ansari XPrize, Archon Genomics XPrize, Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrize, Lunar Lander XChallenge, Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XChallenge and the Automotive XPrize.

Currently IBM is running nine XPrizes, including the AI XPrize.

According to District 3, the creators of the AI XPrize are expecting a higher turnover than ever before. The applicant number could rise as high as 1,000 this time around, mostly because AI is a popular fad in tech and because it’s more accessible than previous competitions like, say, the Lunar Lander XChallenge or the current Google Lunar XPrize.

“We have a lot of great people in Montreal working on AI and we don’t care whether they make it through the XPrize or not. We care to help and coach them,” said Hervé.

The trio emphasized how much Montreal differs from other cities (notably San Francisco) in its willingness to think on a global stage, specifically when it comes to research like AI.

It a familiar refrain. Hervé has strongly advocated for Montreal to cultivate a culture that thinks bigger on a global stage while keeping its tech talent within city limits. His colleagues back him, too.

“The beauty of the AI XPrize is it actually forces people to focus on how big of a problem we can solve as a group,” said Swaine-Simon. “So part of our job with the XPrize is getting teams thinking in the bigger scheme of things.”

They say Montrealers are more than capable of building ingenious AI tech, but most of the time it’s happening within university research labs and not necessarily commercializing. Or the brains behind that tech simply bolt for high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley.

“The AI ecosystem in MTL is very much focused on research, but as a community it’s important to focus on entrepreneurship and adoption from industries. That’s one of the issues we have: shedding a light on AI when it’s not as easily going to be adopted by Canadian industry,” said Ishema-Karekezi.

For Hervé, a trip to San Francisco usually reminds him of what needs to improve in Montreal.

“You meet a researcher and the first thing they do is give you the business card of their startup. [In Montreal] if they have a business card it’s from the university. That’s a huge difference in culture,” Hervé told MTLinTECH. “There’s a whole world out there and we’re too much focused on ourselves. Look out, see what other people are doing, compete with them and communicate on what we discover.”

But as the District 3 folks often mention, this city is one that has all the tools to compete. Swaine-Simon thought back to September when District 3 hosted one of its first info sessions on the XPrize. He asked a local AI expert where Montreal stood in terms of talent.

“They said we’re probably up there in the top. We have the necessary talent but sometimes there’s that lack of vision to be able to execute on it.”

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