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The AI revolution diversifies

McGill women students group photo at the AI4Good Summer Lab at McGill

The AI4Good Summer Lab has two laudable goals: to get more women working with artificial intelligence and machine learning, and to apply those technologies to solve social problems.

The lab is proving to be a hot ticket, having attracted nearly 50 participants, who came from across Canada to McGill for the collaborative summer boot camp, in its first two years.

“Yes, they learn the tech, but the key thing is that they build a network,” says Michelle Yu, BCom’16, one of several McGill alumni volunteers who help coordinate the program. “The women support each other and become friends. They all have similar goals and care about where one another are going next.”

The AI Summer Lab is an initiative of the OSMO Foundation, McGill’s Reasoning and Learning (RL) Lab, and the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms. It is co-organized with Google’s DeepMind AI lab. Members of the lab’s supporting team, like Yu, come from areas across McGill, including management, science, law, computer science and art.

A leader in the Montreal AI boom, Doina Precup heads up the city’s branch of DeepMind and is an associate professor in McGill’s School of Computer Science. She is also co-director of the RL Lab and an advisor of AI4Good. “It’s important to me to help train the next generations of machine learning researchers, to foster diversity and inclusion in the research community through AI projects for social good, and to build up the Montreal AI ecosystem,” says Precup.

“It’s clear she really believes in bringing more women into AI and computer science,” says Yu. “She’s a role model, and she uses her powerful voice to support programs like this.”

For corporate sponsors of AI4Good like Microsoft, which also supports the RL Lab, this kind of philanthropy is an investment, helping create a knowledge and talent pipeline for the future. As Montreal becomes a hub of AI research and innovation, corporations like Facebook and foundations like Good Ventures have also given generously to McGill’s tech initiatives, helping cement its place in Montreal’s AI evolution.

Six weeks go by fast for Summer Lab participants. Midway, a weekend hackathon is open to the public. “There was such great intermingling in the teams,” says Yu, discussing the most recent event, held at Desjardins Lab. “What was really surprising was that there was no group that was just men.”

For the last three weeks, participants work on an AI project to tackle a social problem. This year’s projects included a Braille-to-text converter, an application to identify gaps in access to health services across Montreal and Quebec using demographic data, and methods to use AI for optimizing power grids based on energy consumption.

“It’s kind of a tech sisterhood, where the women really push each other to do better,” says Yu of the lab environment. “We know that people insert unconscious biases into the technologies they’re building, so that’s why gender balance is so important if we want products that are accessible and fair,” she adds.