COMMENTARY || Alberta and Canada well placed to seize AI opportunity
New funding of $125 million will build on strengths of UAlberta and others in Toronto/Waterloo and Montreal to make Canada a global leader in AI.
By DAVID TURPIN
Consider this: by 2025, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies—and the products and businesses they will spark—are predicted to generate at least $50 trillion in global economic growth. In the past five years, venture capital flowing to AI start-ups worldwide increased from about $600 million to $5 billion. We are on the verge of an artificial intelligence and machine learning revolution that will transform every corner of society. Canada must be a leader in this revolution. Indeed, we can be because Canadian researchers are already in the lead.
Canadians—working in Canadian universities—are responsible for major discoveries in artificial intelligence and machine learning. At the University of Alberta, we are home to Richard Sutton, the world’s foremost expert in reinforcement learning (a subfield of machine learning), and to Jonathan Schaeffer, Michael Bowling and their teams, which are well-known for creating the AI systems that solved checkers and out-played human professionals in heads-up no-limit Texas hold'em poker.
The potential application of their research is serious business. No-limit Texas hold’em poker involves decision-making with imperfect or hidden information. Consider the potential of future applications in areas such as planning medical treatments or negotiating complex contracts where decision-making also occurs in the context of incomplete information. Other U of A machine learning research is leading to new applications in healthcare such as the development of intelligent artificial limbs and a highly accurate, low-cost tool for diagnosing tuberculosis.
The U of A’s Csaba Szepesvári is collaborating with Edmonton’s ISL Engineering on Drayton Valley’s water treatment facility. With the application of reinforcement learning, which uses algorithms that adapt to the control process in real time, water filtration is being optimized and energy consumption minimized, without sacrificing water quality.
Thanks to 15 years of sustained investment amounting to more than $40 million by the Alberta government, our artificial intelligence and machine learning research groups have been steadily growing in influence and impact. Today, our department of computing science is ranked second in the world for artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data mining, and its Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (formerly Alberta Innovates Centre for Machine Learning) is Canada’s leading centre in the field of machine intelligence.
Couple the U of A’s research strengths with those found at the University of Toronto’s new Vector Institute and the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms at the Université de Montréal, and it is clear that Canada is well-positioned to build on its leadership role in the development of artificial intelligence.
But, big vision and big investments are needed to ensure the future benefits of Canada’s homegrown research expertise are realized here. On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally launched a $125 million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, first announced in Budget 2017, which will be based in Edmonton, Toronto-Waterloo and Montreal.
Along with government, businesses across Canada are also ramping up investments in AI. In addition to the federal funding, the U of T’s Vector Institute has attracted $50 million from the Ontario government and another $80 million from 31 corporate donors. This past Tuesday, Quebec committed an additional $100 million to help fuel Montreal’s burgeoning AI sector.
Here in Alberta, RBC announced in January a partnership with our Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute. They plan to open an office in Edmonton, creating high-quality R&D jobs—and economic spin-off benefits in the millions. Brad Ferguson of Edmonton Economic Development Corporation reports that, in the last 12 months, he has received more inquiries about Edmonton’s emerging AI sector than any other opportunity.
This is an exciting start but there is enormous room for growth. Alberta has a huge opportunity to diversify its economy. In Edmonton, we have exceptional people doing cutting-edge research, but all of us—in universities, government, and the corporate sector—must now act together to preserve the gains we’ve made and capitalize on our strengths. We have an opportunity and it is up to us to realize the potential. Let us act quickly now to win big tomorrow.
David H. Turpin is president of the University of Alberta.