News / Edmonton

University of Alberta gets real money for artificial intelligence

U of A hopes federal funds will cement Edmonton's status as AI research hub.

University of Alberta faculty of science dean Jonathan Schaeffer.

Supplied / University of Alberta

University of Alberta faculty of science dean Jonathan Schaeffer.

The University of Alberta is an unlikely international hub for artificial intelligence (AI) research, but some of its brightest minds are going south of the border.

The U of A’s science faculty dean Jonathan Schaeffer hopes new funding from the federal government will help change that.

Last month, government announced $125 million for a pan-Canadian AI strategy, split between post-secondary institutions in Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal, to enhance research and recruit talent.

“With all this activity in artificial intelligence, it’s exciting, but the side effect is these people are in high demand and the U.S. has been grabbing as many of them as they possibly can,” Schaeffer said.

“Google, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, these are all companies that have a huge thirst for artificial intelligence related research, and many of our students have been siphoned south of the border to work for these American companies.”

Schaeffer and his team have their hands in a staggering range of AI projects, including developing self-driving cars that can navigate winter roads, image processing to better pinpoint the location of brain tumours, and using Netflix data to better predict what movies someone will want to watch in the future.

He said the number of companies knocking on the U of A’s door is “huge.”

“The point about artificial intelligence is it’s here, it’s used – you probably used it several times today and didn’t even know it – but it can be used to improve many applications today,” he said.

“But the real magic of artificial intelligence is the new things that it’s going to enable, like a self driving car, like personalized medicine. Those things are going to have a transformative effect on today’s society.”

Schaeffer, who joined the U of A as an AI researcher in 1984, said Edmonton has been recruiting  since the 1970s and first gained prominence as an AI leader in developing computer programs that can play checkers, chess and poker.

Edmonton consistently ranks second in the world in AI and machine learning on CSRankings.org, only behind Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Schaeffer said students and researchers often choose the U of A over schools like Harvard, Stanford and MIT.

“It’s absolutely amazing that we’ve been able to build such an incredible group, and retain this incredible group, for such a long period of time, given the obvious disadvantages of where we are compared to our major competitors,” he said.

Schaeffer said the federal grant will not only help the U of A attract and retain more students and professors, but also build its capacity to work with industry and generate economic return for numerous industries.

The global market for AI-related products is expected to reach $47 billion by 2020.

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