HICKS ON BIZ: Putting the AI (artificial intelligence) in Edmonton BY GRAHAM HICKS FIRST POSTED Edmonton Sun: FRIDAY, JULY 14, 2017
An equipment dealer friend was invited to tour a top-secret R&D (research and development) division of a major supplier and manufacturer. He was shown prototypes of models being planned for 10, 20 years out. He was blown away by the money and effort being expended on the company’s long game.
At the University of Alberta, three brilliant AI (artificial intelligence) computer minds — professors Rich Sutton, Michael Bowling and Patrick Pilarski — have, in fact, authored much of the fundamental global research on what’s called reinforcement learning within the AI sphere.
So much so that the University of Alberta is considered the second or third centre of excellence in the world for “machine learning” or self-learning computer/robots.
Hometown and local economy boosters are famous for flights of fantasy accompanying every new technology-based development in town.
But this one is likely for real.
DeepMind, Google’s artificial intelligence research company, has announced its first international research lab outside of its London, UK headquarters — in Edmonton’s Manulife Place.
Why? Because DeepMind wants to tap the brain power of Sutton, Bowling, Pilarski and their teams.
Why these three particular computer scientists, out of the hundreds of experts in the field?
Because they are the best. By way of example, five of DeepMind’s top 50 computer scientists completed their doctorates at the University of Alberta, under the tutelage of Sutton/Bowling/Pilarski.
Why didn’t DeepMind hire the trio and set them up in London? Because the three professors are happy with what they have created in Edmonton — specifically within the U of A’s Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (formerly the Alberta Innovates Centre for Machine Learning). They do not want to move.
Why the reference at the start of this column to top-secret future product designs? Because future technology — keeping up with or surpassing one’s competitors not only today, but tomorrow and the decade after — is top of mind for most global executives.
How the approaching “intelligent robot” era, built on AI reinforcement-learning, is integrated into product lines will be crucial to future corporate success or failure.
Meanwhile, the U of A’s Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute has been quietly getting its act together for some 20 years. Suddenly, it’s deemed by Google (actually Google’s parent company Alphabet) to be one the very best computer reinforcement-learning centres in the world. This is prestige!
Here’s a scenario — still a flight of fantasy, but more realistic than most — of how the partnership between the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute and DeepMind could unfold.
Hmmm, say CEOs of technology-based companies the world over: Are we missing something here? If DeepMind thinks these guys in Edmonton are so important, maybe we should be there too.
Quietly or not-so-quietly, corporate R&D vice-presidents would descend on Edmonton to talk to the profs, the U of A and the AMII. Plans are made to open AMII-associated laboratories in Edmonton. (RBC Bank has already announced the opening of a financial technology research centre here, to draw on the expertise at the AMII.) Some may never be made public, for competitive reasons.
With an expected 30% office tower vacancy rate, space is cheap. Finding the high-powered research talent won’t be as difficult as might be assumed. Hundreds of top-quality computer-learning PhDs who trained at the U of A would be happy to stay or return to Edmonton … if there were career opportunities.
The Edmonton computer research eco-system would grow increasingly sophisticated. AMII, Deep Mind and the other self-learning computer labs would expand. Competitors like to be physically near each other, to keep an eye on what the other guys are doing.
The U of A and governments could up the ante to support this new, research-intensive industry.
Sensing opportunity, entrepreneurially-minded employees would start opening their own companies.
Investors would come around – a home-run in the fast-dawning robotic age would be lucrative indeed.
Economic side-benefits would sprout up. Office space would be taken up, families with professional salaries would move to Edmonton, buy houses, groceries and so on. Non-stop flights to-and-from San Francisco (the current tech centre of the world) would start up again.
An exaggeration? Probably.
But the stars are aligned. And it all comes down to three individuals with unique skills - Rich Sutton, Michael Bowling and Patrick Pilarski – plus the support of countless other individuals, organizations and governments.
They chose to stay in Edmonton. Now the world is coming to them.
So starts new wealth creation.