Artificial Intelligence

Edmonton is Home to a Leader & Pioneer of Reinforcement Learning

Luke Smith
June 25, 2019

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An interview with John Shillington, CEO of Amii

Artificial intelligence is maybe the single most important field of research being explored today. Businesses, universities, institutes, and governments the world over are desperate to harness its potential. And while many are still trying to catch up to this trend, to lay claim to some expertise in the space, Edmonton is leading the way - and has been for a long time.

With a storied history of groundbreaking development in the field, our city has been instrumental in the breakthrough of artificial intelligence, so much so that you cannot write the story of AI without Edmonton.

Demis Hassabis, the founder of Alphabet's DeepMind, has called Edmonton's University of Alberta the "spiritual home and birthplace of games and AI." AI's greatest minds are in good company at UAlberta, which is home to the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) - the third-ranked AI and Machine Learning institute in the world over the past 25 years.

We sat down with John Shillington, the CEO of Amii, to discuss Edmonton's role in the AI industry.

EEDC: Anyone who’s familiar with AI will know the name Richard Sutton, and they’ll know DeepMind and they’ll probably know about the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii). They may even know these are all in Edmonton. But who are some other major players in AI who people might be surprised to learn are from here?

John Shillington: One obvious one you didn’t mention is Jonathan Schaeffer. He’s been this gravitational force around AI in Edmonton for a long time, and he’s still very actively involved in the community and is widely respected and has a really good reputation around the world. Another one of our [Amii] fellows, Patrick Pilarski, has been doing some amazing work. He’s one of the three researchers who were part of bringing DeepMind to Edmonton. He’s in rehabilitation medicine here, and he’s a good example of this connection that the AI research has to a number of other kinds of research – areas we like to think about as “AI and X,” where X is all of these cross-connecting areas that AI can be applied to. Health is right at the top of our list in terms of really impactful, important areas that our Amii fellows contribute to.

EEDC: And for every major headline-grabber, there are probably dozens or hundreds of smaller technologies, or people working on these things who don’t get the same kind of recognition.

JS: Exactly. It’s the iceberg effect: There’s all sorts of stuff going on under the water, and occasionally you see a peak of ice poking out.

EEDC: Amii works with the business community, collaborating on research and helping them build out their own AI capabilities. How does Edmonton’s business-friendly environment, and Alberta’s for that matter, create opportunities in a way that other jurisdictions don’t?

JS: I think we’ve got a nice combination: Edmonton is an attractive place to come to for any business because of the parameters that we’ve set up, including our low taxes. But in terms of AI, Amii has this world-class group at its core, and that’s something that’s just unique about our current opportunity in this space. So, what we’re trying to do is take advantage of that to get great companies to come here and build up a network effect. Once we’ve got a few of these companies, more will come. And I think DeepMind is an example of an anchor company like that.

[The University of Alberta] is the spiritual home and birthplace of games and AI.
Demis Hassabis Founder, DeepMind

EEDC: Sometimes history happens accidentally – the right person in the right place at the right time. How much of Edmonton’s AI history was like this, and how much was a result of these broader economic conditions?

JS: I think it was a really great example of a combination of foresight and confidence coming together. Back in 2002, when the provincial government funded the startup that became Amii, not a lot of people were doing research in machine learning, and AI was kind of out of fashion. But there was this recognition, first of all, that there was this great core group at the University of Alberta here, and then the recognition also that, if you made an investment in it and were able to bring some great people here, Alberta could end up being in this position which, ultimately, we are, 15 years later. I think that’s a really great example of how having these long-term investments in research can have these huge payoffs later. It’s easy to forget that. When you see that we’ve got something, you want to sort of milk it. But it’s that investment in the long run that actually has put us on the map now.

EEDC: Why is it important to have that dynamic relationship with communities outside of the AI community, like the business community and scientific community? Does it allow the AI community to innovate in ways it might not if it were more siloed?

JS: Absolutely. Obviously, there’s that core basic research. But one of the tremendous opportunities with AI is cross-connecting. AI isn’t good for everything, but it’ s good for something everywhere. There are all kinds of opportunities for improving the economy and improving life for the citizens as well. Take something like health care. If you can improve the efficiency of some of the processes, you can save enormous amounts of money and make sure the whole system is more effective.
Amii’s mission is about creating a better world for everyone through machine intelligence. I know some people think that’s kind of vague, but the reality is, that’s what the core researchers want to do. That’s what they’re devoting their careers to and that’s what Amii is built to amplify.

Edmonton is an attractive place to come to for any business because of the parameters that we’ve set up, including our low taxes.
John Shillington CEO, Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute

EEDC: Over time, Edmonton and especially the University of Alberta have produced more and more trailblazers in AI. That, of course, attracts other people to Edmonton. What makes the caliber of today’s talent and the sense of community here exceptional?

JS: Historically, one of the problems is we’ve had these fantastic graduates who haven’t had a great landing place in Edmonton. After they’ve completed their studies, they’re going to the valley or to other centres in the world. What we’re starting to see – and certainly what we want to build up over time through Amii – is an ecosystem that allows them to have a place to land here. That means attracting businesses to come closer and to work more closely with the researchers, students and graduates.
Amii, as a not-for-profit, will also be opening up opportunities for people to work in that space, combining the industrial applications and the research. By doing this, we hope to build up this gravitational attraction for businesses, students and great researchers from around the world. It’s sort of like having a party: The more people you get here, the more will want to come.

EEDC: This sense of permanence and community is about more than just boots on the ground, right? Do these deeper connections lead to deeper innovations?

JS: That’s exactly right. One of the things we’re in the process of building with Amii is a physical space where these collisions can happen. A lot of it boils down to serendipitous discoveries, where you’ve got people working on apparently different problems but they’re near each other and they bump into each other in the hall. Soon, they start talking, and the next thing you know, you realize they hold different pieces of the puzzle. The more people you have involved, the bigger the likelihood that you’re going to end up with these lucky collisions and more great innovations and discoveries.

EEDC: Was there a particular moment when you realized that if you want to work in AI, you don’t have to leave Edmonton?

JS: I wish it were that simple! The short answer is no. But I can say this: two years ago, with the announcement that Amii would be one of the centres to receive federal funding from CIFAR [the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research], and with the announcement that DeepMind was opening up its first international research office here - those for me, were the moments. I felt incredibly fortunate to be able to contribute to something that is utterly unique, at least in my experience, and history. We’re at a real watershed moment. It’s like dropping crystal into a supersaturated solution. Suddenly, boom! All sorts of things can happen.

EEDC: Edmonton’s role in the history of AI is well-established. What role do you think Edmonton will play in its future?

JS: First of all, we have an absolutely unprecedented opportunity to be world class, and we’re taking it. But the other thing is, there’s been an enormous amount of movement all over the world. If you look at China, for example, and the amount of money they’re putting into AI, it means nobody is standing still. We have to capitalize on this moment. If we do, we can retain our status right at the top of the world.

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