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.