When Mercedez-Benz sought to reduce emissions, improve air quality and increase energy efficiency at its Grand Prix headquarters in Brackley, England, the luxury car giant came to Alberta.
Mercedes-Benz partnered with mCloud Technologies, a Calgary-based software company that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help companies around the world operate more sustainably. “mCloud leverages the cloud, connects to energy intensive assets and makes those assets more efficient, by definition lowering their carbon footprint,” says mCloud president and CEO Russ McMeekin. “Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix is making their Brackley campus an unrivaled example of how innovative, connected technologies can continuously drive material reductions in energy consumption, emissions and carbon footprint at a world-class campus.”
It is just one in a string of recent wins for Alberta’s AI community.
“At least every month, I meet with delegates from other countries,” says Kirk Rockwell, a vice president with the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), a non-profit institute based in Edmonton, Alberta’s capital city, that supports world-leading research in AI and machine learning and translates scientific advancement into industry adoption. “In some months I’m meeting with three or four delegates from other countries, from Europe, from Asia.”
Amii is one of Canada’s three centres of AI excellence. It has worked with governments, universities and corporations for 20 years to help build Alberta into an international hotspot.
Rockwell works with companies looking to branch out into AI by building programs and services that align to their specific needs, and constructing systems to evaluate companies’ readiness to use technology. Often, that starts with fundamental training and education on the basic principles of machine learning and AI.
Rockwell says the biggest factor driving Alberta’s AI prowess is years of leading research.
“The University of Alberta has been a top-three research facility for AI in the world consistently over the last 20 years,” he says. “We’ve started to realize that this is really an advantage. As that research team grew, and the number of people that are being trained by those top researchers grew, there is really now a talent pool, an expertise pool, that is attractive to companies and other people around the world.”
The development of the Pan-Canadian AI strategy in 2017 helped Alberta take its expertise to new heights and gain broader international recognition. In June 2022, the Canadian government announced $443 million for the second phase of the strategy, which will focus on the commercialization and standardization of AI, in addition to attracting talent.
Various industry sectors are now looking to Alberta for AI solutions. Amii has worked with major oil companies on emissions reduction, with healthcare professionals on imaging technologies, and recently with a brewing company to reduce CO2 production from fermentation.
The provincial government is also get-ting in on the action. In May 2022, Alberta partnered with Alberta software developer AltaML on the province’s first public AI lab, GovLab.ai, to help the government work on solutions to problems like wildfire prediction.
“The University of Alberta has been a top-three research facility for AI in the world consistently over the last 20 years.” Kirk Rockwell, Vice President, Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii)
Aaryn Flynn, who works with AI in Edmonton as a game developer and CEO with Inflexion Games, says while Alberta’s “world-class” talent is the biggest driver for investment attraction, there are other appealing factors. “I think talent is the biggest driver for investment attraction,” he says, “but beyond that, there’s a lot of reasons to grow a business and invest in Alberta: There’s the Alberta advantage of lower cost of living, the cost of corporate taxes, those sorts of things.”
The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), in Calgary, has also ramped up its AI research. Its school of business recently launched the Catalyst Group to bring more students into
emerging technologies. Sabrina Sullivan, a director at SAIT’s School for Advanced Digital Technology, is interested in developing inclusive, responsible AI to “unlock human potential” through automation.
She says Alberta is often too humble and viewed as an underdog in AI, but that won’t be the case for long. “Invest in it now, so that you already have an ability to connect in and be part of that continued successive growth of this as a centre of AI,” she says.