U of T's Jasper Snoek, Kevin Swersky, Hugo Larochelle and Ryan Adams, four of Whetlab's five principals (photos courtesy Whetlab)

Twitter buys Whetlab, artificial intelligence and machine learning startup

Researchers behind startup include former students of Google’s AI expert, U of T professor Geoffrey Hinton

Twitter has scooped up a machine-learning startup called Whetlab, launched by several alumni and a PhD student from the University of Toronto.

Twitter announced the acquisition June 17, 2015. 

Whetlab’s tech has, until now, only been available in a closed trial – or ‘beta’ – basis for selected users. But influential startup blog TechCrunch reports that its capabilities assist computers in recognizing objects, processing speech and other “A.I.-like technologies that would make machine learning easier for companies to implement."

A splash on the startup’s website read:

“We are very excited to announce that we are joining forces with Twitter! Over the past year, we have created a technology to make machine learning better and faster for companies, automatically. Twitter is the platform for open communication on the internet and we believe that Whetlab’s technology can have a great impact by accelerating Twitter’s internal machine learning efforts.”

The company added that its current services will be shut down July 15.

Several of the startup’s co-founders, including U of T alumni Ryan Adams, Hugo Larochelle and Jasper Snoek, worked as postdoctoral researchers with renowned artificial intelligence and machine learning expert, U of T professor Geoffrey Hinton, winner of the Merck Prize, the Killam Prize and the Herzberg gold Medal for Science and Engineering.

Hinton now splits his time between U of T and Google. His neural networks company, launched with two of his post-doctoral research students, was acquired by the California-based tech giant in 2013 and made headlines around the world. But only recently have features appeared in the media as Hinton shares the specifics of his work and its advances thus far. (Read the Wired feature on Hinton’s work.) (Read a Toronto Star article about Hinton and Google.) (Listen to a CBC Radio interview with Hinton.) (Read the University of Toronto Magazine story about Hinton.)

While Adams now teaches at Harvard and Larochelle teaches at Université de Sherbrooke, co-founder Kevin Swersky is still at U of T, pursuing his PhD with computer science researcher Richard Zemel. Zemel also refined some of the startup's technology, said Donna Shukaris at U of T's Innovations & Partnerships Office (IPO). Whetlab's technology builds on rigorous statistical methods related to machine learning that developed at the University of Toronto, Shukaris explained, adding that the deal between Whetlab and Twitter was facilitated through the IPO.

Swersky was unavailable for comment June 17. In a previous interview with U of T's computer science department, Snoek said he always knew he would pursue computer science as a career.

“I was always excited about technology and trying to understand how things work. And I was fascinated by the Internet and how it so quickly revolutionized how we communicate and obtain information – I wanted to be a part of that revolution.”

U of T’s computer science program has been celebrated as one of the top 10 computer science programs in the world. Read about another startup from researchers at the department that recently joined Google.

“Our world-class reputation in machine learning has led to numerous advances and innovations within the field,” said Professor Sven Dickinson, chair of U of T's computer science department. “We will continue to see the impact of the revolutionary work by our ML faculty and students.”

Interested in learning more about entrepreneurship and startups at U of T? Visit U of T's Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

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