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Microsoft Buys Canadian Artificial Intelligence Startup for More Brainpower

January 13, 2017, 4:25 PM UTC

Microsoft is buying Maluuba, a Canadian startup focused on giving software a better understanding of human language. This natural language processing technology is a key underpinning of artificial intelligence (AI.) Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

As part of the plan, Microsoft (MSFT) will also get renowned AI expert Yoshua Bengio aboard as an advisor. Bengio, who serves in that capacity already for Maluuba, is professor of computer science and operations research at the University of Montreal and heads the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms.

He also founded a startup, Element AI, in which Microsoft Ventures took a stake late last year.

In a post announcing the news, Microsoft executive vice president Harry Shum said he will now “interact directly” with Bengio whose work he has long “admired from a distance.”

Maluuba was founded by former students from the University of Waterloo, who then opened an AI lab in Montreal, a city which has blossomed into an important AI hub—in large part because of Bengio’s presence.

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Bengio is known for his work in deep learning and neural networks, subsets of artificial intelligence in which software mimics the activities of the neurons in the human brain. A neural network would thus be capable of human-like thought without necessarily relying on human programmers.

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He is so well-known in his field that U.S. software behemoths seem to be bidding on his services. Part of Google’s investment in a new Montreal AI research lab, announced in November, was earmarked to fund some of Bengio’s projects at the institute.

In a blog post Maluuba’s co-founders Sam Pasupalak and Kaheer Suleman wrote that Microsoft’s plan to democratize AI “aligns with how how we see our technology being used.” They also cited the capabilities of Microsoft Azure cloud infrastructure as a key way to spread the AI wealth.

Microsoft, like (CRM) and Google (GOOG), has been on the hunt for AI expertise to hire or buy.

Over the past three years, for example, Microsoft bought Genee, SwiftKey, VoloMetrix, FieldOne, Equivio, and Aorato—all of which work in some form of AI.