Canada was the first country in the world to have an AI strategy, and Edmonton has been central to it through the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii). But some critics say the strategy has focused too much on research and not enough on commercialization, leaving Canada acting as "just an R&D lab for foreign firms," as one observer put it.
Steph Enders, Amii's vice-president of product, disagrees that we're missing the boat on leveraging AI for economic development.
"I don't think the opportunity has passed us by," she told Episode 46 of Bloom. "I actually think we're incredibly well positioned for this opportunity, right now and in the future."
Commercialization is a big part of the second phase of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, and Amii is engaged in that work, Enders said.
The non-profit institute helped 74 industry partners with AI adoption last year, and "we're on track for that number to be vastly increased in this fiscal," she said. "To me, that shows that there really is a temperature change in companies from startups all the way to multinationals understanding that we have to grab a hold of this technology in order to be successful in the future."
One of those opportunities is a five-year collaboration with TELUS announced on Jan. 17. It will see the development of AI-based algorithms and techniques to help manage network infrastructure and identify risks.
"AI can be really helpful to predict equipment failure, high usage loads, and even elements of optimization," Enders said, drawing an analogy to work Amii has done with ISL Engineering on a water treatment plant in Drayton Valley.
It's too early to know what the TELUS collaboration will lead to, but to Enders, it is an example of commercialization that pertains to three important elements: knowledge, talent, and technology.
"I think sometimes people focus too much on just the tech transfer. And that's where we kind of get bogged down in those conversations of what technology was created, what IP was protected," she said. "It's really important work to do those things as well, and that's the focus of the partnership. But I don't want to lose track of the knowledge and talent transfer part of the possibility as well."
Amii CEO Cam Linke made similar points in response to critics who are concerned about the relative dearth of intellectual property emerging from research institutes like his. "Patents aren't really the big driver. As a specific measure of success, it isn't necessarily the right (one) in my mind," he told The Globe and Mail.
Like Enders, Linke referred to the retention of talent as a valuable result of Canada's AI strategy. He noted that machine learning graduates from the University of Alberta can find work in Edmonton instead of moving to London to work for Alphabet's DeepMind Technologies, for example. Little did he know that Google's parent company would soon close DeepMind's Edmonton office, ending the tenure of the research institute's only international outpost a few months after celebrating its fifth anniversary.
"The closure of the DeepMind office is an example of global tech workforce trends and its impact on the local community — and unfortunately, Edmonton and Canada are not immune to these pressures," Linke told Global News after the DeepMind news broke. "While we begin to process this difficult news, the closure of the office is only one area of impact in our very robust ecosystem. Amii continues to see growth in AI adoption in working with hundreds of companies across Alberta to commercialize and operationalize the technology."
Speaking before the DeepMind announcement, Enders was similarly optimistic, especially regarding Amii's ability to keep talented graduates from leaving by giving them valuable and "sticky" work experience here. "We really do have cutting-edge programs (that) bridge into industry."
AI is everywhere
"I knew when my parents asked me about it at dinner that it was definitely hitting the mainstream," Enders said.
That increased awareness offers an opportunity for dialogue that "takes away any fear of that technology and anchors it in reality around what are the real challenges, what are we going to see hit people in their everyday lives, and where are there ways we can benefit from it," she said.
The concern about the responsible use of ChatGPT and similar programs encourages a discussion of ethics that is not new to Amii but remains vital, Enders said. "I think responsible AI is continuing to be a larger part of the dialogue, especially here in Canada."
As Nicole Janssen of AltaML has said, ethics is key to the commercialization of AI as well. Amii and the CIO Strategy Council launched a governance course in July 2022 to help small and medium-sized businesses develop strong ethical foundations for AI-enabled products.
Amii is eager to open itself up to businesses, students, and anyone who wants to better understand what AI can do. The institute hosts events online and at its space at 10065 Jasper Avenue NW, and it is ready to welcome crowds to the Upper Bound conference in May.
Perhaps surprisingly, the live chat on Amii's website is operated by humans, not a chatbot, Enders added. "We're happy to interact with you and give you great recommendations for things you can do with us, but also ways that you can accelerate your adoption through other channels," she said.
Hear more about what Amii is up to in the Jan. 26 episode of Taproot's podcast about innovation in Edmonton: