Gavriel State, senior director, system software at NVIDIA

What does it take to catch the eye of a technology titan whose innovations have driven the PC gaming market, powered Academy Award-winning visual effects, and are now shaping a fantastical future of robots, self-driving cars and artificial intelligence advances?

A team of innovators from Toronto clearly had something exceptional to offer NVIDIA Corporation, the California-based company that invented the graphics processing unit (GPU) logic chip now used in everything from Nintendo Switch and Hollywood films, to advanced computing and autonomous cars.

"Our GPU is used in pretty much every conceivable place where computer graphics are necessary," says Gavriel State, senior director, system software at NVIDIA. "Virtually all car companies in the world are using our GPUs. They are also now being used as one of the primary drivers of the AI revolution."

At the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, audiences got to test Audi's Q7 self-driving car.
NVIDIA's graphics processing unit (GPU) is used by virtually all car companies, including Audi, which demonstrated this self-driving car at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Made-in-Ontario technology brings NVIDIA to Toronto

Packaging and screen display of NVIDIA Corporation's SHIELD TV and tablet streaming console, which is built with made-in-Ontario technology.
NVIDIA Corporation's SHIELD TV and tablet streaming console is built with a made-in-Ontario technology that makes it easier to port games across different platforms.

A few years ago, NVIDIA was looking to expand the games offering on its SHIELD TV and tablet streaming, which gives users access to a wide variety of media, including shows such as Netflix, HBO and Amazon prime. The company approached TransGaming Inc., a Toronto company that had developed a "game portability" technology called Cider.

"NVDIA wanted to put more games on SHIELD, and CIDER makes it easier to port games from platform to platform," explains Mr. State, who founded TransGaming. "So CIDER was the driver behind NVIDIA's interest in the company."

In June 2015, NVIDIA acquired CIDER and the business unit behind the technology. As part of this acquisition, the company opened its first Canadian operation, called NVIDIA Development Inc., with 15 former TransGaming team members including Mr. State.

An 'amazing' pool of technology talent that makes it easy to recruit the best

Since then, NVIDIA Development, located in downtown Toronto, has expanded into a 40-person office that focuses on gaming-related hardware and software, as well as AI. Such highly specialized work calls for people with advanced technology skills, says Mr. State.

"We have access to an amazing pool of talent in Toronto and in Ontario as a whole," he says. "We've been very successful in recruiting skilled people with degrees in computer science and engineering."

A growing artificial intelligence and deep learning community

Being in Toronto puts NVIDIA at the centre of a growing AI and deep learning community. Mr. State notes that many of the techniques now used in deep learning were the result of research at the University of Toronto, one of the world's top 25 universities, according to Times Higher Education.

NVIDIA has working relationships with AI and deep learning researchers at University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, says Mr. State. The company also recruits employees from these schools.

"The research work going on in these universities is first class," he says. "In fact, we've given awards to professors at U of T for some of the work they're doing in deep learning and AI."

One example of this award winning work is research that uses a GPU-powered deep learning method for identifying cancer-causing mutations, which earned the research team a US$200,000 grant from NVIDIA.

Led by electrical and computer engineering professor Dr. Brendan Frey, the team developed a computational approach that could predict cancer "hot spots" and, when exposed to new data, could also be trained to find cell mutations that can cause other diseases. The same year his team won the NVIDIA award, Dr. Frey launched Deep Genomics, a Toronto-based company that develops machine learning methods for predicting how genetic variations can lead to disease.

Talent, resources and research capabilities: They're all here in Ontario

"There's a lot of interesting work going on in Ontario," says Mr. State. "At U of T, there's a project that's mapping hundreds of thousands of details of the city – every single street, building, streetlight, and tree – and this data can then be used for training autonomous driving systems.

"We're also talking to University of Waterloo about the work they're doing on evolutionary deep learning and principles of natural selection of AI."

While gaming hardware and software continues to be the main focus at NVIDIA in Ontario, the Toronto team is starting to do more in AI, says Mr. State. The talent, resources and research community are certainly all present and available in Ontario.

"The reality is that AI is going to have as much impact on the world as the industrial revolution and we're able to advance AI right here in Ontario," he says. "You don't have to move to Silicon Valley to make a global impact."

July 4, 2017
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