Microsoft acquires deep learning startup Maluuba


Microsoft has acquired Montreal deep learning startup Maluuba.

It’s likely the biggest startup acquisition news this city has seen since early 2015 when Microsoft bought Groove, an app that curates music. The sale is another clear signal pointing to how Montreal has established itself as a hotbed for artificial intelligence (AI) research.

Maluuba cofounders Sam Pasupalak and Kaheer Suleman and the rest of their team joins Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research organization. Yoshua Bengio, one of the world’s foremost experts in deep learning and head of Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, will advise Microsoft.

Per Maluuba’s news release Friday:

“We are incredibly excited to announce an important milestone on our journey so far. As of today, Maluuba has agreed to be acquired by Microsoft. As we turn the page on this new chapter, we thought we would discuss this exciting development and share our thoughts on what’s next to come. Ever since we were classmates in our AI course (CS 486) at the University of Waterloo, way back in the summer of 2010, our vision has been to solve artificial general intelligence by creating literate machines that could think, reason and communicate like humans.

Understanding human language is an extremely complex task and, ultimately, the holy grail in the field of AI. In early 2014, we observed great leaps in the fields of computer vision and speech recognition and pondered the potential of Deep Learning and Reinforcement Learning to enable our mission of creating literate machines. We realized that a great opportunity lay ahead, where machines could learn to model the intelligence and decision-making capabilities of the human brain. This meant more than simple pattern matching on text, but building systems that can actually comprehend, synthesize, infer and make logical decisions like humans.

So far, our team has focused on the areas of machine reading comprehension, dialogue understanding, and general (human) intelligence capabilities such as memory, common-sense reasoning, and information seeking behavior. Our early research achievements in these domains accelerated our need to scale our team rapidly; it was apparent that we needed to bolster our work with significant resources to advance towards solving artificial general intelligence.

Microsoft is an excellent match for our company. Their ambitious vision of democratizing AI to empower every person and every organization on the planet fundamentally aligns with how we see our technology being used. Microsoft provides us the opportunity to deliver our work to the billions of consumer and enterprise users that can benefit from the advent of truly intelligent machines. In addition, Microsoft’s immense technical resources including back-end infrastructure (i.e. Microsoft’s Azure and GPU infrastructure) and engineering talent will help us accelerate our pace in conducting research and bringing solutions to market. In short, our new partnership enables us to advance more quickly toward our vision of creating literate machines.

Our journey would not be possible without the incredible support of Professor Yoshua Bengio, one of Deep Learning’s founding fathers; Professor Richard Sutton, the foremost pioneer of Reinforcement Learning; and the growing research ecosystem in Montreal. Professor Bengio, in particular, has been invaluable, offering frequent advice and guidance to our researchers to shape their work. He also deserves special recognition for his vision in establishing Montreal as a nucleus for AI research in the last several years. Through the work conducted at the University of Montreal and McGill University, the city has developed the largest academic concentration of deep learning in the world: there are now about 150 deep learning researchers in the region’s universities. Canada’s academic, enterprise, and startup ecosystems are driving great innovation in fields like AI, demonstrating that Canada, and more specifically Montreal, can be a compelling alternative to Silicon Valley.  In this new chapter, we will continue to collaborate actively with the Montreal and global academic communities invaluable publishing world-leading Artificial Intelligence research.

Finally, we would like to thank our employees for getting Maluuba to this point in our collective journey. As this next chapter unfolds we’re reminded of the words of T.S. Eliot: “In our end is our beginning.”

Harry Shum, Microsoft Artificial Intelligence and Research Group’s executive VP wrote that Friday was an “exciting day for the advancement of AI at Microsoft.”

“Maluuba’s expertise in deep learning and reinforcement learning for question-answering and decision-making systems will help us advance our strategy to democratize AI and to make it accessible and valuable to everyone — consumers, businesses and developers.

We’ve recently set new milestones for speech and image recognition using deep learning techniques, and with this acquisition we are, as Wayne Gretzky would say, skating to where the puck will be next — machine reading and writing.

Maluuba’s vision is to advance toward a more general artificial intelligence by creating literate machines that can think, reason and communicate like humans — a vision exactly in line with ours. Maluuba’s impressive team is addressing some of the fundamental problems in language understanding by modeling some of the innate capabilities of the human brain, from memory and common sense reasoning to curiosity and decision making. I’ve been in the AI research and development field for more than 20 years now, and I’m incredibly excited about the scenarios that this acquisition could make possible in conversational AI.

Imagine a future where, instead of frantically searching through your organization’s directory, documents or emails to find the top tax-law experts in your company, for example, you could communicate with an AI agent that would leverage Maluuba’s machine comprehension capabilities to immediately respond to your request. The agent would be able to answer your question in a company security-compliant manner by having a deeper understanding of the contents of your organization’s documents and emails, instead of simply retrieving a document by keyword matching, which happens today. This is just one of hundreds of scenarios we could imagine as Maluuba pushes the state-of-the-art technology of machine literacy.”

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