IT’S TIME WE TALK: BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN BUSINESS AND AI

The reality is we need each other. One of the key roles of postsecondary education is to make research relevant to humanity, which can be done best through products and services that people use. So why are academia and business still resisting each-other? And how can we get them to work together to make Canada’s AI eco-system, a global leader.

BUSINESS IN CANADA NEEDS ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) IN ORDER TO COMPETE GLOBALLY and the future of AI research in Edmonton specifically, needs the support of businesses to provide industry problems to solve, with a willingness to pay for the research and development being done by academia. With such compatible goals, this should be a match made in technology heaven, so why are we here discussing a battle for an uncertain future of this would-be power couple?

The problem is, these two major forces have have been coexisting like polite roommates instead of the rock solid partners they should be. Now, when it’s more critical than ever that these two rely on each other to build and grow, they’re barreling towards a dicey-looking arranged marriage that’s set to take place on a rickety boat with no navigation in unchartered waters infested with sharks and probably a Godzilla attack or two.

While the country has many AI resources and opportunities, there is a continued disconnect between the academic and business side which makes it difficult to advance together. Before business and AI research are forced together or perish without each other, we need to take strides to bring them together in a strategic and mutually benefical way.

BRIDGING THE GAP
Up until now, many Canadian businesses have not taken AI very seriously as an equal partner. It’s been more of a “yeah, that would be cool to have” instead of a “yes, this is what we need to get a competitive edge as a business and as a country.” However, in the past few years there has been an awakening and companies are starting to not just consider AI but are actively seeking out experts in the field who can help bring them further along in the incoming technology revolution. While both partners are willing, there are still barriers between business and research, so the question has now become how do we bridge this gap? To get an idea of Canada’s position in the AI industry, we have to look at where we stand nationally and for this article, how the key areas of Alberta and Edmonton fit in.

CANADA’S ROLE IN AI
Watching media coverage on artificial intelligence, it can seem as if this is a new technology that came to light just a few years ago, but nothing could be further from the truth. For over two decades, AI has been integrated into a wide range of devices and services we use every day, from credit card fraud monitoring to fingerprint recognition on our cell phones.

Moreover, Canada is hardly just a consumer of these technologies. We are a worldwide hub for AI research and have been for a very long time. We have been pioneers and a driving force behind critical data collection and research. Our AI research pedigree includes such notable AI powerhouses as the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII) which got its start at the University of Alberta the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorythms (MILA) which began at the University of Montreal, and the Vector Institute at the University of Toronto..

However, despite this collegiate prowess, we have failed to parlay this into a commercialized success. We’re at the top of the heap in research, but the lack of Canadian businesses embracing AI has meant the vast majority of the highly-qualified AI students that graduate from our universities move out of the country, or, at best, concentrate themselves in only a few major cities.

ATTRACTING AND KEEPING TALENT
What is an industry without the talent to run it? Answer: the current state that the AI industry in Edmonton finds itself in. Despite its reputation as the worldwide hub for AI, Edmonton struggles to keep AI graduates and experts on home soil.
While there is no shortage of willing applicants to take on coveted positions at the University of Alberta’s AI department, there is a scarcity of funding and faculty to support all the graduates needed to fuel industry.
To put in perspective how short funding falls, Jonathan Schaeffer, Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta, laid out just how many applicants to the program get turned away. “We admit about 50-70 students each year, so let’s say 60. In January, we cut off applications to graduate programs. We were at 1635 apps for 60 positions. We should have had the application window open for a few more months but there was no point in getting even more people to apply.”
Of these students, very few stay in Edmonton after graduation. While our graduates are moving on to many great positions, they are mostly being taken outside the country. For some students, this

is just a matter of returning to their home country after graduation. However, for others it is a matter of there not being the kind of jobs fit for their qualifications. Canada has many amazing companies and more are coming each year, but the prestigious and lucrative jobs don’t follow. This is a missed opportunity for business, graduates and the country as a whole. To combat this, we need a multi-pronged strategy that starts now.

THE PAN-CANADIAN AI STRATEGY
What is the best time to plant a tree? 20-years ago. However, the next best time is right now. This is the position that Canada finds itself in: while we haven’t laid the groundwork to be viable competition for countries like the United States and China currently, we are positioned to take steps to improve our future in the industry. Simply put, the competition is formidable and the only way to combat this is with aggressive funding and a purposeful approach that recognizes the importance of AI as a disruptive technology and potential driving force for the country’s economy.
This starts with increasing the number of expert AI researchers and graduates who remain in Canada and creating an ecosystem that fosters a relationship between business and the academic side of AI. By connecting hubs of global thought leadership, we can support a national research community which will give graduates the resources and incentives needed to succeed.

All of this is detailed out in the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy which the Canadian government has invested $125M into. The program, led by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (“CIFAR’), has invested into the Vector Institute, MILA and AMII which are all dedicated to AI research and data collection. With these hubs located in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton respectively, the entire country has become fertile ground for a strong AI industry.

ADVICE TO EXECUTIVES
In short, plant the seeds now. If you haven’t already woken up to the role of AI in your company and your company’s potential role in the AI ecosystem, it’s time to make this happen. Get your house in order and get your company digitally-enabled.
Investing in infrastructure and training for your team is one of the best returns you can get. A strong, well-maintained and updated infrastructure can save you countless hours and budgetary

“There isn’t any facet of our daily lives the economy, government, industry that won’t be touched by AI”
Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta
Cory Janssen AltaML & Edmonton.AI
Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta

expenses later on because you won’t be making massive leaps in the future. Skipping infrastructure investment or waiting to catch up later is like building a staircase with only two steps.

Getting involved now is crucial because all signs point to AI not only becoming a disruptive, but also a permanent part of every major part of our world. “I’ve had people tell me AI is another fad, but AI is different. There isn’t any facet of our daily lives – the economy, government, industry- that won’t be touched by AI. We’ve known that all along, but only recently have we seen how disruptive it is,” says Schaeffer. “It will be disruptive, there is no question. The only question is how fast it takes off. It will disrupt and it’s only a matter of how soon businesses will adopt, people with accept and government will acknowledge it.”

THE ROLE OF ACCELERATE AB
If businesses can take another piece of advice from this, it is to pay attention to and participate in technology focused conferences. The Accelerate AB conference, for example, celebrates local startups in Alberta and is playing a big role in bringing together research and industry in a meaningful way.
Designed to bring together investors, influencers and leaders within Alberta’s technology and startup community, Accelerate AB is a way to get ideas and resources flowing between researchers and industry. Conferences like these work to form the kind of partnerships we need in order to be successful as individual ccompanies and as a country.

UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA AND BEYOND
The history of AI at the U of A goes back decades with one of the first advancements coming in the form of a groundbreaking AI checkers-playing program called Chinook that was able to best human players in a 1994 championship.

A few years later in 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue computer took on the even more complicated game of chess and won an exhibition match against world chess champion, Gary Kasparov. That initiative was led by Dr. Murray Campbell who was also a University of Alberta grad. A decade after this, Dr. Schaeffer’s research was able to “solve” checkers with a “perfect play,” meaning it led to a draw game. and the accomplishment was named as one of the top 10 discoveries of 2007 by the Science journal.

More recently, momentum continued to build as University of Alberta professors and students created the Deep Stack program that defeated professional poker players at their own game. Then, in 2016, University of Alberta alumni spearheaded the creation of DeepMind’s AlphaGo, which defeated the human champion in the Chinese board game Go , attracting worldwide attention.

In 2002, a pre-cursor organization to AMII was created to focus on AI and to further specialize in algorithmic game theory, reinforcement learning, natural language processing and other key AI subjects. Today, AMII, a spinoff from the University of Alberta that involves many of the university’s researchers, is helping create a fast-growing industrial ecosystem.

On the corporate side, Edmonton is now home to several AI corporate research labs and research collaborations with the local presence of national and international companies such as DeepMind, Google Brain, the Royal Bank of Canada’s Borealis.AI lab, Amazon, and IBM Research. Additionally, major investments are being made by such Alberta companies as ATB Financial and Servus Credit Union.

These companies are enjoying the benefits of being big fish in a small pond. While the University of Alberta graduates a wealth of top talent, many of these graduates leave for other areas of Canada and the world. However, alumni are starting to return to fill local positions.

Schaeffer, one of the AI faculty currently serving at the University of Alberta, has encouraged companies to take advantage of the low cost and AI opportunities in Edmonton to not only help their personal industry but to promote diversification of the economy as a whole.

With personal visits to 35 major companies in the past year to promote their involvement in AI, Schaeffer has said, “I want people to say that UAlberta is a good investment for taxpayers and one way to do that is to recognize that we are extremely privileged to have one of the world’s premiere academic research groups in AI with an expertise in machine learning…We can go out and help diversify the economy, use our expertise to help Edmonton, Alberta and Canadian companies embrace new technology opportunities, add dollars to their bottom line, give competitive edgeand be able to say that we, as a public institution, are giving back, we’re helping transform Edmonton, Alberta and Canada.”

EDMONTON.AI
Edmonton is particularly well situated to make the most of the burgeoning AI disruption because of the presence of Edmonton.AI. This community driven group founded by Edmonton entrepreneurs Bruce Alton, Aaryn Flynn and Cory Janssen is helping to grow the AI and machine learning (ML) ecosystem.
Ideally, Edmonton.AI is the entry point for businesses to get involved with AI and ML. It will be the one place with the best resources to either handle a company’s AI needs or point them in the right direction for finding the technical talent and business building skills they require.

THE FUTURE OF AI
With initiatives in the works and gaining steam, there is now a question of where this has the potential to lead us in the next several decades and beyond. While Canada is largely known for its plentiful natural resources and scientific advancements, the presence of AI research now , could prove to be the gateway to being an AI industrial center in the future.

We will also see the rise of the autonomous vehicle which will change the way our cities are planned out while creating and changing other industries. This is one of many innovations from AI that will disrupt multiple industries and further highlight the need for jumping on the opportunity we have with AI now.

Schaeffer promotes the idea of diversification and having a bold plan. “We have an opportunity here. How did Edmonton, Alberta become one of the world’s premier sites for AI and ML? As one of my US colleagues asks, how did that happen in the subarctic? We don’t have the geographic advantages of other places. Edmonton has to work hard to make things happen. We need to take this opportunity and catapult it forward. Whether that means tax incentives, free rent, or politicians showing up at meetings with me at these big companies… saying ‘we’ll set you up, we want you to be successful and we want you to be successful in Edmonton.’ This has got to be a step towards diversifying the economy.”

With a strong plan and an aggressive approach to pivoting into this industry, we can help to ensure the success of the country, its industries and its people.

A ONCE IN A LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY
While there has been controversial coverage of AI’s effect on our economy and our future, there are far more signs pointing to AI being more hero than villain.
Aaryn Flynn, former General Manager of the gaming company BioWare, paints a picture of how a thriving AI ecosystem would boost the city and its citizens in the coming years. “My hope is to see Edmonton embrace its role as a world leader in AI not just on the research side but on the industry and economic value side of things. I’d like to see lots and lots of people coming to Edmonton. ai meetups where they’re talking about the next

Edmonton.AI is the entry point for businesses to get involved with AI and ML. It will be the one place with the best resources to either handle a company’s AI needs or point them in the right direction for finding the technical talent and business building skills they require.
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great thing they’ve created. They’re talking about raising their families in the city and they’re able to do that because they have good jobs and good career prospects in the city. They’re part of a rich, AI-centric ecosystem and they’re thinking about what’s next because they built something that is valuable to all Edmontonians.”
“Edmonton has the potential to be a worldwide hub for AI businesses, for an AI ecosystem and there are some major corporations that are setting up shop in town. In the past, we have been known for shopping malls and hockey players but we can be known as an AI center as well,” says Bruce Alton, a founding partner of early stage growth focused company A-Partners, when asked about what AI will look like in the coming decades.

He went on to say, “I want to give back to a community that has given me so much over my 30-year career . I hope that my contributions to Edmonton. AI and being a mentor to the next generation of entrepreneurs will help create a whole new crop of disruptive innovations in the coming years.”

Cory Janssen, founder of AltaML, focuses on the practical side of AI and how it will improve our everyday lives. “I think in the future it will be easier to talk to an AI agent rather than a person. Automation can only take you so far, but you reach a wall until you get intelligence into play. The goal is to become the best place in the world to build an AI company or develop AI software. One of the ways we’re doing this is by making AltaMLa technology company that specializesin developing next-generation products powered by machine learning and data. While it currently only has 15 staff members, this number will grow to 35 by the end of the year.”

Jonathan Schaeffer sees the future of AI in Edmonton as a “… once in a lifetime opportunity and these opportunities rarely happen where you have this confluence of incredible good fortune of building up this amazing group and the opportunity to do something really, really good for the public, for the economy, for Albertans and Canadians… With what’s happening now, we have an opportunity to leave a legacy, a lasting legacy that has the potential to do amazing things for this city, for this province. It is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m not going to let it go by without yelling, kicking, screaming and making sure I’m doing everything I can to get the message heard because that’s the only way things are going to happen.”
What these expert testimonials tell us is that the human side of AI is not being marginalized or forgotten. While the future may look different because of AI, our past also doesn’t mirror our present and in many ways that is extremely positive. The same way automobiles, internet, cell phones, and hundreds of other innovations have changed our economic and social landscapes, so too will AI and all signs point to it being something worth incorporating into our businesses and economy.
Bruce Alton, Cory Janssen, Aaryn Flynn – creating an ecosystem for business and AI to work together with Edmonton.AI

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