$1M for new students working on AI and the environment

Yoshua Bengio, professor at UdeM, Frédéric Bouchard, dean Faculté des arts et des sciences, Angèle St-Pierre and Hugo Larochelle, donors, Daniel Jutras, rector of UdeM, Michael Pecho, vice-rector of Alumni, partnerships and philanthropic relation

Yoshua Bengio, professor at UdeM, Frédéric Bouchard, dean Faculté des arts et des sciences, Angèle St-Pierre and Hugo Larochelle, donors, Daniel Jutras, rector of UdeM, Michael Pecho, vice-rector of Alumni, partnerships and philanthropic relation

Credit: Amélie Philibert - Université de Montréal

In 5 seconds

UdeM graduates Hugo Larochelle and Angèle St-Pierre make a big donation that will fund scholarships for one or two recruits a year to come do their doctorates in artificial intelligence here.

Université de Montréal will deepen its focus on research into artificial-intelligence by bringing one or two new doctoral students on scholarships here every year to look at how AI can help protect the environment.

That's thanks to a $1-million donation announced today by UdM adjunct professor and Google Brain research scientist Hugo Larochelle and his wife Angèle St-Pierre. Both are graduates of the university, he in computer science, she in animal biology. 

We caught up with the philanthropic couple to ask about their major bequest.

First of all, $1 million is a hefty chunk of cash. How did the idea first come about, how did you arrive at that figure and how, as two people barely in their 40s, can you afford it?

Hugo: I’m very much aware of the privilege I have of being educated and trained in a field – AI and machine learning – that happened to bloom when I was just starting my scientific career. This led to an early opportunity to sell Whetlab, a startup I co-founded, and to be hired by large tech companies where salaries are generous. So my wife and I felt compelled to share this privilege and give back part of the money so more people can benefit from it. 

Angèle: A lot of people and causes in the world really need money, much more than we do, so we’ve donating regularly every year. But at the same time we also like saving a bit in order to eventually be able tp make a larger, symbolic donation. Our hope is that this $1-million donation now will perhaps inspire others with similar means to also make a bold gesture. So here we are!

You want your donation to support students in AI working on environmental solutions. Why that particular focus? How does it reflect your values?

Hugo: I wanted to give back to the academic community that brought me where I am now. And I wanted the donation to be more focused on a particular domain rather than just general AI.

Angèle: Since the environment is close to our hearts, we combined the two. We thought this was a great way to go beyond what we can do as individuals, by partnering with Université de Montréal to achieve something bigger together.

What kind of students do you have in mind? Who would be ideal candidates? And what would they do, exactly, with the money once here?

Hugo: Qualifying students will be pursuing a PhD in machine learning, dedicated towards research applied to problems related to the environment, such as fighting climate change or the decline in biodiversity. Ideal candidates would therefore combine a strong interest in AI and a passion towards solving today’s environmental challenges. This will also require an interest in performing multidisciplinary research, which could lead to collaborations with professors from the departments of biological sciences or geography.

Angèle: The money will fund a scholarship of $40,000 a year to support the students financially and help them focus on their academic training and research. 

Can you give some examples of how AI can help address environmental issues?

Hugo: Well, one project that’s in development is a computer-vision system that can take aerial imagery of a natural habitat and perform an analysis of how abundant various species of animals or plants are there. Such a tool could then be useful to analyse the progression of the status of biodiversity in a remote area, through time, and perhaps connect that to various forms of human activity. Another possibility could be to use AI to improve the forecasting of energy demand and of weather conditions, which would be helpful to more easily introduce into our electricity grid forms of renewable energy such as solar and wind that aren’t as reliable and that depend on the local weather conditions. AI could also help in designing better materials for batteries and facilitate the electrification of our economy. In terms of fighting climate change, there’s a ton of ideas in a position paper my colleague Yoshua Bengio helped co-author, too – everything from improving vehicle efficiency to designing carbon markets.

This isn't the first time you've donated, as a couple, to a Quebec university: in 2019, you gave to Université de Sherbrooke to support its computer-science department, where you taught for five years. Why donate as a couple, and why always to universitie

Hugo: We have jointly made donations to universities because we both think education is important. We have also made several donations to other causes, such as Centraide through the TechAide AI Conference that I’ve co-organized and that has helped raise thousands of dollars in the past few years. 

Angèle: We find that giving back is actually quite rewarding, while allowing us to demonstrate to our four daughters the kind of values that we hope will inspire them. Generally, we hope that our example motivates others with similar means to do the same.

Wrapping up, what's the bottom line: is AI destined to be a force for environmental good, or as some see it, will its widespread use make it simply part of the problem?

Hugo: AI is a tool we use as a society, and what we’ll achieve will depend on what we aim to do with it. This is why we’re making such a large commitment here: we strongly believe that lots of good can be achieved with AI for our environment, and this starts by training the next cohorts of scientists to be thought-leaders at the intersection of these two fields. 

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