Exploring the Canadian AI Ecosystem: Edmonton & Montreal

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After organizing the “International Symposium on Applications of Artificial Intelligence” last fall, the GCCIR was approached by Edmonton Economic Development to provide some input about the AI landscape in Edmonton to RE•WORK (https://www.re-work.co/), a leading global events company specializing in AI and deep learning. Here is an excerpt of RE•WORK’s blog post on their discoveries about AI in Canada:

“Edmonton: The Home of Reinforcement Learning

Over the course of our exploration into AI in Edmonton, it became quickly apparent that their ground-up approach to progressing AI within the city has paid off. Reflected in the amount of new AI startups in the area and boom of applications to Richard Sutton’s reinforcement learning lab, Edmonton showcases vast amounts of entrepreneurial spirit and innovation effort. Students once (or still) affiliated with the Computer Science department at the University of Alberta (UoA) are being actively supported by the Canadian government and organizations including Alberta Innovates, Startup Edmonton and of course, Amii.

“The University of Alberta has been a leader in AI research for decades now. As the province looks to diversify its economy and grow industries in addition to, and complementary to, the oil and gas industry, AI has come to the fore as an area of strength we can draw upon. There is also increased interest and support coming from our municipal, provincial, and federal governments. This creates a perfect storm of a) growing demand from industry; b) world-class expertise to draw upon; and c) government support for development and application.” – Katelyn Petersen, Executive Director, German-Canadian Centre for Innovation and Research

As Katelyn suggests, AI growth within Edmonton’s industries is a recent phenomenon. Once upon a time, UoA represented the whole AI ecosystem in Edmonton, thrust into the spotlight by prominent AI researchers, Richard Sutton, Michael Bowling, and Patrick Pilarski. Another remarkable Canadian professor, Jonathan Schaeffer, author of the checkers-playing program Chinook, the first computer program to win a human world championship, shared his thoughts on why their research in reinforcement learning underpins AI in Edmonton;

“Toronto and Montreal are concentrating on Deep Learning. Edmonton has Rich Sutton, so reinforcement learning is our expertise. I believe that reinforcement learning for computers, just like humans, is a critically important component of intelligence. To try something, make a mistake, and then modify your behaviour to reduce/eliminate the chances of the mistake happening again is powerful and general. The goal of AI research is AGI — Artificial General Intelligence. Surely and AGI computer will have reinforcement learning as part of its core” – Jonathan Schaeffer, Professor, University of Alberta

Also making significant waves in the AI field in Edmonton is Martha White, Assistant Professor of AI at UoA, CIFAR Chair, and Amii Fellow. As part of our Women in AI Podcast, Martha sat down with us to share her motivations and most recent work. Keep an eye out for the full conversation here, but in the meantime here is a sneak preview of what we discussed:

“One of the things I really love about reinforcement learning is that it is a very general formula for AI and gives a lot of room to incorporate many different types of techniques. It allows for a lot of innovation and allows you to think about many different ways that you could actually apply the algorithms that you are developing to a broad set of problems. I also think representation learning is one of the most fundamental questions in AI.” – Martha White, Assistant Professor, University of Alberta

Alongside this academic core of AI experts, it is undeniable the effects that Amii has had in expanding the AI community outwards into industry within Edmonton. During our visit, we sat down with Warren Johnston, Director of Amii Connects and Anna Koop, Director of Applied Machine Learning to discuss their core program areas, including Amii Explores, Connects, Educates & Innovates. As well as nurturing the next generation of AI experts in Edmonton, the team at Amii are leading the way in fostering partnerships between industry and academia; cohesively bringing together industry problems with research solutions in absolute harmony. When asking Warren about Amii’s latest contributions, he noted;

“With new programs like Amii Innovates and Amii Educates, we’re helping to translate our scientific and academic leadership into industry, helping businesses build in-house AI capabilities and encouraging AI literacy in Alberta’s workforce. Add to this, Alberta’s young and highly-educated population, and we have the necessary elements for a powerful AI research and economic engine. Edmonton, especially, is the kind of place where risk-taking is encouraged and where the community will rally around great organizations and good ideas.“ – Warren Johnston, Director, Amii Connects

Jonathan Schaeffer also shared his two cents with us on his predictions for specific industries who have a growing interest in developing an AI capability in Edmonton, out with the traditional sectors. He believes that we should keep a close eye on finance and gaming, in particular. For example, through a partnership with UoA, ATB Financial are investing heavily in AI and applying this technology across their business.

Alongside larger corporations such as ATB, there is a burgeoning AI startup scene in Edmonton and we were keen to investigate why. We spoke to Dornoosh of Medo.ai, an AI-Augmented 3D Ultrasound platform, who emigrated from Singapore to Edmonton in 2015.

“A startup company does not mean anything without its people. Finding well-educated talents in Edmonton is relatively easier than anywhere else. This pleasant opportunity is further enriched by the active collaboration of UofA and the industry. At the UofA, students are encouraged to apply for internship positions at startup to apply their knowledge into solving real-world problems. The community has a very important role in the culture here in Edmonton and as an entrepreneur one can heavily count on the support he/she can receive from the community.” Dornoosh Zonoobi, Co-Founder, Medo.ai

Our time in Edmonton only further confirmed to us that the city has cemented itself as a center for AI research, and we are excited to see how corporations in Edmonton adapt to utilizing machine learning in the future. However, it was time for us to check in on the latest news in Montreal, also a popular destination with startups and tech giants – Facebook, Samsung, Denso, IBM, Ubisoft, Google, and Thales to name a few – alike.”

Read the full article here.

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