Introducing the AI Initiative: Alberta’s Artificial Intelligence Knowledge Source

By Shea Johnson, Founder of the AI Initiative

What is the AI Initiative?

Borne from the drive to learn more about artificial intelligence, my vision for the AI Initiative is to provide post-secondary students, the general public, and eventually K-12 students with the knowledge and resources to work with AI. Through this vision, I want to encourage the development of value-based AI products and services that benefit society.

Working with the City of Edmonton, the Government of Alberta, local businesses and start-ups, and eventually the whole of Alberta, the AI Initiative wants to create meaningful products and services using cutting-edge AI technology. Importantly, we want to listen to the needs of Albertans when developing our projects.

Artificial Intelligence/machine learning applications are particularly good at recognising patterns in data. This could be particularly helpful in building more efficient city planning, intelligent traffic systems, or improved snow removal schedules. Using AI, solutions to these problems could be extrapolated from population, traffic, social media, and weather data.

The AI Initiative will utilize a combination of research expertise, student and public talent, and already available resources to solve real-world problems, while enhancing general knowledge of AI. In addition, we hope to provide students with exceptional extra-curricular experiences by having them work on real issues alongside professionals and the people that would benefit from those solutions.

We are fortunate to have a wealth of post-secondary AI expertise and infrastructure in Alberta, including digital resources from organizations such as Cybera. One of my goals with the AI Initiative is to share readily-available resources for AI development in a convenient format, to help decrease the “barriers-to-entry” into the field of AI.

I have spoken to a variety of students and industry professionals who are both interested in developing their AI skills, and integrating AI into different aspects of their business, including optimizing their project management or scheduling. Both groups are excited about the opportunity to work with each other, while learning about how AI can help create a better society.

With the exceptionally wide range of AI applications that span nearly every industry, I have made it a priority for the AI Initiative to promote an open and inclusive environment. Not only does this mean encouraging inter-disciplinary cooperation and collaboration between institutions, but it also means being open to the unique insights from anyone, from any walk of life. Fostering such a community will no doubt present challenges, but success will mean a healthy community capable of solving some of society’s most hidden problems.

What could the future of AI look like?

Initially, I predict the integration of AI into our lives will be similar to the use of internet and smartphones. With the ever-increasing capabilities of network bandwidth, computational power, and digital storage, we are more than able to incorporate “narrow AI” solutions (i.e. AI that is only able to handle one particular task) into existing applications, in addition to producing new unimagined applications.

One example could be a better linguistic translation solution that would allow us to seamlessly understand each other around the world. As we continue to use increasingly smarter applications that augment our abilities, I foresee the eventuality where many jobs no longer exist, because it will become more of a hindrance for a human to do the job than a narrow AI(s). While this prediction might be considered a cause for worry, it also presents an incredible opportunity.

The AI augmentation that eliminates one type of work could also create new and unexpected work. Imagine if you were able to effortlessly continue the work you are doing now, but 10x faster. How much more value could you offer? What would you have more time to contribute to?

Decades in the future, when we have both augmented ourselves and are working alongside countless AI interfaces, humans will continue to have a purpose: in seeking and answering questions. Can we understand why particular nodes in a neural net inexplicably gain priority over others? If the transportation industry is made completely autonomous, is there a better method of transport? Even when humanity achieves General AI, we will still be driven by a sense of creativity and exploration. What does the universe have to offer?

As a student specializing in software development, I am under no illusions that artificial intelligence / machine learning will, at the very least, play a role in augmenting my future work, if not outright decrease or eliminate my career opportunities. Because of this disruption, which will be felt by most of the workforce, it is vitally important to remain informed and have a basic knowledge of AI systems.

Artificial Intelligence now and why you should care!

Having had the privilege of living in Alberta my entire life, I am convinced that this is one of the finest, if not the finest, place to live on Earth. We have diverse, inclusive, friendly, and intelligent people around us. We have plentiful resources and wealth. And, as it turns out, we have some of the brightest minds in artificial intelligence research. For decades, Alberta has played host to a profound AI research community, including University of Alberta faculty Jonathan Schaeffer and Richard Sutton.

In case you haven’t been following recent Alberta-related AI news, here are some significant highlights.

  • Nov. 15, 2018 – The Canadian Federal Government invests $2.5 Million in an AI-Supercomputing hub for academic and industry collaboration at the University of Alberta. (Link)
  • Oct. 16, 2018 – MIT invests $1 Billion USD (Yes Billion) in an AI-focused university, to meet the demand for AI-related tech talent. (Link)
  • April. 10, 2018 – ATB invests $940,000 through a four-year partnership at the University of Alberta, to create real-world banking solutions and applications for real Albertans. (Link)
  • Jan. 30, 2018 – DeepMind announces they are funding an endowed chair position in the University of Alberta’s Department of Computing Science. (Link)
  • July. 17, 2017 – DeepMind opens first ever international AI research office in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, in close collaboration with the University of Alberta. (Link)
  • Nov. 20, 2017 – $1.6 Million CAD five-year funding deal between Servus Credit Union and the University of Alberta, to support AI-related research. (Link)

With the recent significant backing from the provincial and federal governments, the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) has become dedicated to facilitating both local and global scientific and business relationships with Alberta’s AI researchers. Our goal for the AI Initiative is to work closely with Amii to bring students and the general public the knowledge needed to work with AI.

Interested in artificial intelligence development in Alberta? Feel free to contact us. You can also visit our website to discover some of the AI development resources available, get inspired, and see upcoming AI-related events in Edmonton (for example, there is an interesting event today [December 11] you might like to attend!).

Feel free to reach out to us to ask questions, suggest a problem we should solve, and sign up to our newsletter. We’re excited to get started!


Shea Johnson is a student at NAIT, where he is studying Computer Software Development. He is also the founder of the AI Initiative.