BMO invests in arts-focused AI lab at University of Toronto

From the Tech newsletter: The bank aims to educate employees and understand the human impact of technology.
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BMO is the latest company to tap into the University of Toronto’s expertise in artificial intelligence by investing in a research project with the school.

But unlike the others, BMO’s lab will not be found in the school’s computer science department.

A $5 million donation – the largest the bank has ever made to a post-secondary school in Canada – will support the creation of the “BMO Lab for Creative Research in the Arts, Performance, Emerging Technologies and AI.”

Housed within its Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, the BMO lab will engage researchers and scientists, but also international artists, working collaboratively on researching AI “as a means for creative, human expression.” Instead of the business world, all activities will be “firmly place in human, social, and cultural space,” which will help it engage with the broader public and addressing a common feeling of the world becoming increasingly complex.

David Rokeby has been enlisted to serve as the first director of the lab. An interactive artist, Rokeby is a U of T lecturer whose work has utilized various forms of media to explore how technology impacts humans and their lives, touching on subjects including artificial intelligence and surveillance.

Coming at AI from an arts and humanities background not only potentially helps the bank better understand the impact AI may have on the lives of its customers, but also aims to provide the company and its workforce with the skills needed to handle changing workplace demographics and disruptive business models.

“To strengthen competitiveness, companies must harness the full power and potential of technologies responsibly, while developing talent for the future – including investing in employee training and upskilling,” said Darryl White, CEO, of BMO Financial Group. “At BMO, we’re seeing tremendous benefits from the integration of AI, freeing up capacity for employees to engage in valuable insight-driven work and creating benefits for customers such as significantly reducing time to open business accounts.”

BMO already invests roughly $78 million annually into employee training and learning initiatives.

Other companies – including banks – have approached AI research in a way that doesn’t have an explicit connection to their business. RBC, for examples, operates several Borealis AI research labs across Canada, where researchers pursue AI research and applications that do not immediately relate to finance – such as in addressing climate change – but could still have some kind of impact in the markets in which it operates.

But “investing in the workforce of tomorrow” is becoming almost as big a priority for banks as AI. Last year, RBC announced “Future Launch,” a 10-year, $500 million campaign and program to help youth pursue education and training that prepares them for a changing job market and addresses current skill gaps. In addition to helping provide skills to people who may one day be RBC employees – a focus in BMO’s announcement – it also ensures more people will be able to seek employment, participate in the economy and be a customer of the bank.

On the academic front, BMO has also worked closely with Ryerson University’s DMZ accelerator to identify and work with emerging companies that could help it address different business and client challenges.