• Calgary Tech Journal
  • Posts
  • ‘Now is the time to double down’: Inside Amii and U of A’s $30M bet on AI

‘Now is the time to double down’: Inside Amii and U of A’s $30M bet on AI

New research funding aims to accelerate the development of Alberta’s AI ecosystem.

U of A president Bill Flanagan and Amii CEO Cam Linke (Credit: Cooper & O’Hara)

Amii (Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute) is investing $30 million to create 20 new research chairs in artificial intelligence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

The new positions will focus on interdisciplinary research, exploring how AI can push the boundaries of research into fields including health, energy, physics, and Indigenous leadership.

Cam Linke, CEO of Amii, which has invested in AI research for decades, said the ambition to make U of A a global leader in AI is evident today, and it will continue to see the impact of that for decades.

He said the new investment will include an international recruiting call to hire 20 new researchers in AI, building on the global leadership already in place in the field.

“Over the next three years, we’ll continue to invest in the field with five new researchers in computer science who will join a group of 31 researchers who have been leading the field of fundamental AI research, many (of) who have been doing it for decades,” Linke said.

“In addition, we’ll be investing in 15 new research chairs who will be advancing the field of AI with impact areas like health, biology, chemistry and materials, quantum science, space, agriculture, and Indigenous leadership.

“Some of the biggest challenges facing the world today are going to be tackled by this group. And advancing this field and the impact it can have will be done using the most important tool of our time, artificial intelligence. We’ve seen the impact of rising healthcare costs and the effect of pandemic and disease. And having researchers in health and biology will help lead the tackling of these challenges. With current issues around the globe, issues like food security are going to be taken on by researchers in space, remote sensing and agriculture, bringing about the food security that we all need.”

As society continues to experience an energy transition, there is investment in researchers who will advance AI toward the chemical, material, and quantum science solutions needed for this shift.

‘Now is the time to double down’

Linke said a new platform will be created for new startups, so targeted training can take place that will reach hundreds of thousands of learners, and for work-integrated learning opportunities to connect talent into these companies.

Amii partners with companies of all sizes, across industries, to drive innovation strategy and provide practical guidance, corporate training, and talent recruitment services.

“At a time when there’s a lot of hype in the field, now is the time to double down (on) a great, ambitious science in artificial intelligence and to invest in the ambitious people doing it,” said Linke. “Investing in research creates the knowledge and talent that becomes the big lever that both raises the impact of all fields and creates a platform for world-changing ideas to see commercial success.”

‘A constant leader’

Bill Flanagan, president of the U of A, said the $30-million investment will help ensure that Amii and the entire AI ecosystem continue their exponential trajectory.

He said the point of the research is to move beyond the theoretical and to commercialize technologies with real-world applications.

“Alberta has built an enormous reputation worldwide as a hub for AI and AI research. And in fact, Edmonton has been cited as the fastest-growing tech market in the last five years which is a really remarkable achievement,” he said. “And a large part of our global reputation for excellence is due to the work that is done in our partnership with Amii.

“And there is a reason that Edmonton was selected as one of the three centres of AI excellence (along with Montreal and Toronto) as part of the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, and Amii has demonstrated its ability to advance scientific discoveries in artificial intelligence, helping to solve some of the world’s most complex problems. And Amii has been a cornerstone of the Alberta AI ecosystem. Although we’ve seen this ecosystem evolve over the years, Amii has been a constant leader.”

Flanagan said the $30-million investment would help advance next-generation science in energy, health, Indigenous initiatives in health, and the humanities. There are currently four existing research chairs at the university.

‘Attracting the world’s greatest researchers’

Since AI touches all aspects of life and society, 15 of the new AI chairs will be “cluster” hires and will focus on cross-departmental and cross-faculty issues of global significance. The remaining five hires will build on the university’s excellence in computer science.

Flanagan said the U of A is ranked as one of the top universities globally for its AI research.

“We’re very proud at the University of Alberta. We’re actually the first university in Canada that developed a department of computer science, and this is back in the 70s when, if you remember back then, computers were just a distant thing on the horizon,” he said.

“The University of Alberta had the insight to recognize that this was going to be an important area of study… Since that time we’ve been successful in attracting some of the world’s greatest researchers in the field. The one that always comes to mind is Rich Sutton who is globally recognized as a leader in [reinforcement] learning. Rich Sutton has really helped to build a critical mass of expertise at the University of Alberta that is literally known around the world for our excellence in AI.

“There isn’t really any field of economic human activity that will not be touched by AI. So this is why the 20 chairs… will really be spread across the university, advancing our research strength in a whole variety of fields.”

Linke said Amii is anchored in the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, which aims to make the country a hub of AI development and commercialization. It’s tasked with advancing Canada’s AI potential.

“With the U of A as our primary driver of our AI research excellence, at Amii we invest both in AI research and create bridges for that knowledge and talent to see impact,” Linke said. “As much as we like to talk about the technology, about technology transfer, we believe [it’s] the talent transfer that creates the impact on the world.”