Alberta’s first public AI lab hopes to solve nagging government problems with data and innovation

Alberta’s first public artificial intelligence lab is being hailed as a ground-breaking way to create data-driven solutions for government problems — and an incentive to keep talented computer science graduates from leaving the province. is a new partnership that will bring together government staff, post-secondary students and machine learning experts from AltaML, an Edmonton software company specializing in applied artificial intelligence.

Once the lab is fully operational this summer, it will operate on a cohort basis, with a new group of government employees, interns and AI experts going through the process every four months. A pilot cohort of the lab starts this week. 

An example of work that could be done by the lab is an AltaML project using data to predict wildfires, company co-founder Nicole Janssen told CBC’s Edmonton AM on Wednesday,

“Being able to predict where the most likely chance of wildfires are on a daily basis, so that crews and equipment can be placed appropriately … it’s looking like it’s going to save millions of dollars just this fire season, just by reallocating resources to the right places,” she said.

Edmonton alone boasts the University of Alberta, the 20-year-old Amii machine-learning institute, and Google DeepMind, which opened an Edmonton office in 2017.

But retaining talent has still been a challenge, with 80 per cent of U of A computing science graduates choosing to leave the province, Janssen said. 

She said the government lab will help expose Alberta students to a potential career in the public sector. Even if students don’t consider a career option, the real-world experience is still helpful, she added.

“This way they can kind of see what’s out there, see the opportunities and hopefully stay,” she said. 

According to the government announcement delivered by Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish on Tuesday, the province will invest $3.4 million annually in the lab. 

AltaML estimates that AI will yield about $100 million in benefits for Alberta over the next five years. 

“This is going to be benefiting all of the tech ecosystem across Alberta by getting more folks working in this space on real world problems and developing real world solutions with technology,” Glubish said Tuesday.

He said the lab’s goal is to help public sector workers focus on higher priorities, as AI will use data to eliminate redundancies. 

Glubish said once the lab is successful, the province may even consider commercializing its work.

7:22Alberta’s first public sector AI lab

The provincial government is creating its first public artificial intelligence lab called One of the companies behind the project is Edmonton-based AltaML and co-founder Nicole Janssen joins us to discuss what this means for the tech industry. 7:22

When asked about concerns that AI could replace humans in the workplace, Janssen said that’s not what they have noticed in their work so far. 

“What it’s done,” she said, “is it’s taken away either the uncertainty or the things that don’t require the highest brainpower and taken them off the table so that the individuals can focus on things that actually they really can impact.”

Steve Liem

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