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Technology & Innovation in the Edmonton region – it’s an opportunity right now

AI and Technology
Published On
December 17, 2020

AI and innovative technologies are some of the biggest drivers of value for businesses in today’s economy. In fact, some estimates predict that AI could add as much as $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. AI and technology adoption provide the tools to make businesses safer, more efficient, more productive and increase their competitiveness. Companies that are becoming early adopters of emerging technologies, like AI, machine learning (ML) and automation are expanding and increasing their market share, while others who are unable to shift their business models are struggling for survival.

The University of Alberta has a 20-year legacy of research in artificial intelligence and machine learning – an impressive track record that continues to attract talent into the region. In research heavy fields such as AI and ML, talent attracts talent. Often, decisions about where researchers choose to work and/or study has a lot to do with who they will be working with. Richard Sutton was one of the early global AI pioneers to locate to the Edmonton region to continue his work in reinforcement learning and since then we’ve attracted dozens of other big names in the AI field, like Patrick Polarski, and Michael Bowling.

Richard Sutton is considered the father of reinforcement learning

Not only are we attracting talent, industry is following suit with Google Brain, DeepMind, Toyota, Volkswagen and IBM investing in the region looking to chase the talent that exists here.

Local company AltaML is capitalizing on the opportunity by finding ways to apply the regional expertise to business. They’ve built successful partnerships with companies in some of the Edmonton region’s strongest industries – including healthcare, energy and construction.

“We should be world leaders in health and AI, in oil and gas and AI,” says Cory Janssen, co-CEO of AltaML. “Hopefully what we have here is a cluster out of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and the next big boom will come out of that.”

The Edmonton region is also home to the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), part of the Pan-Canadian AI strategy.  Amii is linking theory to practice, by building partnerships with businesses, governments, and NGO’s to support them in adopting AI tools into their operations. Imperial Oil partnered with Amii to collaborate on the development of Imperial’s in-house machine learning capabilities, which will enable a range of applied artificial intelligence (AI) projects. Through these projects, Imperial will work to develop more effective ways to recover oil and gas resources, reduce environmental impacts and improve the safety of its workforce.

“At Imperial, we are taking action to be a leader in advancing digital and AI technology across the value chain,” said John Whelan, Imperial’s senior vice-president, upstream. “Amii is not only a leader in the AI space globally, but based locally in Alberta. We believe the institute is a perfect partner to help us showcase Alberta’s leadership in technology and digital solutions for responsibly-produced oil and gas.”

Government supports are also in place for businesses in the energy sector looking to access this expertise. The province of Alberta is supporting Amii with a $5 million grant to develop AI capabilities in the energy sector aimed at emission reduction technologies.

RJ MacLean is another great example of an Edmonton region company that is turning to innovative technologies to transform the energy sector using robotics to do some of the industry’s dirtiest – and most dangerous – work.

RJ MacLean’s innovative solutions for tank cleaning make the process safer and more efficient

Storage tank cleaning is an essential process in the oil sector and is required to be performed in any facility where oil is stored. Traditionally, this process involves removing as much of the product or sludge within the tank as possible, then people climb into the tanks to finish the job by hand. Despite rigorous safety precautions, this is some of the most dangerous work being done in an industry that is often viewed as resistant to change.

RJ MacLean’s robotics technology makes the process easier, safer, more environmentally friendly and more efficient and its being adopted by some of the biggest multinationals in the energy sector.

“The Edmonton region is very focused on research and development,” says Kiely. “It’s very innovative here. There are not a lot of communities that are as focused on putting their heads down and challenging the status quo the way Edmonton is doing. There’s a collective willingness for innovation that translates into a global scale.”

AI and innovative technologies also hold enormous potential for the life sciences sector.

One University of Alberta spinoff is using the regional expertise and access to data to scale rapidly. DrugBank is a University of Alberta spinoff that has created a vast database related to pharmaceutical drugs, selling their information to more than 130 clients around the world. Commercial users can purchase a license in to use the data and gain access to additional datasets. DrugBank Scientific Drug Information is available to pharmaceutical companies and helps them use artificial intelligence, bioinformatics and data science to discover new drugs and find new applications for existing drugs.

Josh Felker, Founder of BoxOne Ventures, says they invested in DrugBank because, “computational and machine learning advances are transforming the pharmaceutical and health industries. The success of these approaches is highly dependent on the scope and quality of their reference data. DrugBank has developed the world’s most detailed, comprehensive and accurate resource for drug and molecular data. They are increasingly becoming a key input into major advances in data-driven medicine.”

Learn more about the opportunities in AI and innovative technologies in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region.