Illustration by Mike Kendrick

Story by Scott Lilwall

Just off Highway 60, a short jaunt south of Devon, sits one of the most celebrated pieces of industrial equipment in the country.

The collection of steel lattices has a name: Leduc #1, thederrick that struck oil south of Edmonton more than 70 years ago. On a coldFebruary evening in 1947, the tower ushered a new industry into Alberta with abelch of flame and a column of thick smoke and transformed the province'sidentity. It's been dismantled, restored and dismantled again before finallyending up at its current home in a museum for the energy industry.

Half a century later, in the early 2000s, Alberta waschanging again. This time, there wasn't any smoke or fire to announce theshift. Instead, it was happening in the halls of the province's legislature andthe labs in its universities. Quiet investments were being made that would turnAlberta into a beacon for some of the top minds in artificial intelligence andmachine learning.

There aren't any museums or eye-catching steel towers thatmark the birth of the artificial intelligence sector in Alberta. But theprovince has something much more important: a head-start in a sector that isquickly becoming a worldwide obsession.

"There is a pipeline of talent that exists in Alberta right now, because of that early investment," says Cory Janssen, the founder of AltaML.

The company aims to commercialize the pioneering work doneby AI and machine learning researchers in Alberta, translating it intosomething that can aid industry in the province.

Twenty years ago, artificial intelligence was the farthestthing from a sure bet. Save for a few researchers who were pushing theboundaries of how machines "think," most people saw it as the stuff of sci-fi.

But some could see what it was going to become. In 2000, theAlberta government set aside a $500 million endowment to create the AlbertaIngenuity Fund (also known as the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Science andEngineering Research).

One of its early programs was a competition to establish research groups for promising scientific fields. Among those created was what would become the Alberta Innovates Centre for Machine Learning, later the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii).

The research group had an audacious goal: to attract andrecruit some of the world's top AI researchers to work at its universities.

"Back in 2002, very few people were really consideringartificial intelligence and machine learning to be important areas [ofresearch]," says Kirk Rockwell, current COO of Amii. "That's what really gaveus the advantage.

And then over the next 16 or 17 years, that fundingcontinued to flow to the university to create this world-class researchcentre."

Rockwell says that one of the vital decisions Alberta madewas to put up the resources to support high-quality research. It's an expensiveendeavour, but it has a multiplying effect. The promise attracted some of thepioneering researchers of the day.

In machine intelligence, like other research-heavy fields,talent attracts talent. For many, the question of where they will end upworking is heavily influenced by who they will be working with. Alberta'sinitial investment started a snowball effect, drawing more talent to theprovince.

Not only that, but it kept them from being lured off whencompeting organizations with deep pockets came calling.

"There was enough going on that when people came knocking onthe door to poach them for Silicon Valley or Google, there was enough to say'no, I've got world-class peers here, I'm going to stay,'" he says.

Richard S. Sutton was one of those early researchers tobring his work to Alberta. The pioneering machine-intelligence researcher hadspent two decades working in artificial intelligence and reinforcement learningat centres in Massachusetts and New Jersey. In 2003, he headed north to work atthe University of Alberta.

"I came to Edmonton because of the three P's," he says. "Thepeople, the position and the politics."

The politics referred to his growing unease with thedirection that the United States was going under then-President George W. Bush.Most interest in AI research in the country was geared towards militaryapplications (a trend that continues to this day), which didn't interestSutton. That, combined with the promise of a role where he could explore hisinterests and talented peers to work it, lured him north.

"They made some big hires here. The province had a lot offoresight to invest in [machine intelligence]. Gradually AI became popular, andnow it is very popular," he said.

As that popularity grew, others began to see the value inAlberta's artificial intelligence hub. The federal government began to provideinvestment in the province, as well as in Canada's two other major AI centresin Montreal and Toronto.

But in those early days, Rockwell says the funding that camethrough Alberta Innovates was instrumental.

"Before the federal government began contributingsignificantly in this space ... Alberta Innovates offered $40 million infunding," he says.

"I can't say it wouldn't have happened without it. But itwouldn't look like it does now, no way. We wouldn't be this far along, wewouldn't have been able to keep the people we have."

Alberta Innovates is still a major contributor to Amii's funding.  But in an era of belt-tightening and so manydifferent demands on provincial coffers, there's worry about what futuresupport will look like.

The province's AI industry also faces a unique challenge:it's not really an industry. At least, not in the traditional sense.

AI's greatest impact isn't creating things on its own. Itdoesn't build mines and factories. It doesn't fill up warehouses and train carswith products, not directly.  It does itsbest work in the background, making incremental changes that buoy other sectorsof the economy. Right now, Rockwell points to things like using AI to identifyoptions for preventative maintenance to save costs, or reducing emissions andenergy use in industry. Other times, it can be about making scheduling workshifts more effective or anticipating the number of healthcare workers neededduring a certain period.

The agriculture sector is also poised to benefit from AI advances. Even as global food demand increases, farmers across Canada are seeing shortages in two of their most important resources - labour and farmland. Smart farms, like the one set up at Olds College, allow researchers to literally field test technologies like automated soil monitoring and data-gathering combines with the goal of higher yields.

"We are trying to lift our entire economy, not just create asector," Rockwell says.

"What we're not trying to do is replace anything. We're notsaying that everyone who works in the oil sector will be working at Facebook.We're not trying to put oil and gas out of business. In fact, our goals arealigned."

It's effective. But often invisible. And for the peopleworking in the sector, they worry it might not be clear to governments andbusinesses how important it is.

"With an oil and gas company, you can see when they build a huge facility. Or even something like Shopify, which is creating thousands of jobs. You can see that. We don't have our own Shopify, not yet," says Janssen.

"That doesn't mean it isn't there. It's the food courts indowntown Calgary and Edmonton, which are full of young workers, people who arebuying houses and getting mortgages. We are in that awkward phase that youcan't see it yet."

To grow out of that awkward invisible stage, Alberta's AIindustry needs a healthy balance between research and application.

When all the pieces are in place, both of those sides fuelthe other. Researchers find breakthroughs, which companies find real-worldapplications for. The profit from that allows those companies to expand andreinvest in research, attracting new talent and leading to further discoveries.

"Right now, we've got the scientific side in pretty goodshape," Sutton says. "Now, we need to build up the applied side."

He says Amii has an important role to play in encouragingmore real-world AI use. The organization offers a range of advisement, trainingand talent acquisition services to empower AI adoption across economic sectors.But a lot of it also needs to come from outside the organization, both from newcompanies and long-established players.

So far, many traditional industries have been hesitant toadopt new AI. Embracing machine intelligence is a risk, just like any othermajor change. And many private industries in Canada don't see the benefit intaking a risk when the more traditional methods are still working.

The same goes for finding private investment in AI. With itsimpacts not always being as visible as other new technologies, it can be hardto understand how much potential artificial intelligence holds.

Sutton says that hesitation is understandable. But it isalso a mistake. Work must be done to keep hold of the advantage that Albertahas been quietly building for the past two decades.

"If we wait, we will by necessity fail. We will lose thatefficiency we have now," he argues.

"I think as Canadians, we can be humble. But we can also bevery ambitious. We need to find a mix of the ambition and the humility. Andright now, is the time to be ambitious."

AltaML's Cory Janseen agrees. He argues that Alberta gaineda great headstart with its early investments. But things have changed over thepast 20 years; the rest of the world has "woken up" to the economic and socialbenefits that machine intelligence can promise.

Countries like China and the United States are now puttingbig money behind their AI industries. While they might be joining later, hesays they are quickly catching up. Public funding, in addition to privateinvestment, is still vital, he argues.

"Let me use this analogy: let's say that there is a factorythat produces the most desirable product in the world - I think it is fair tosay that's what AI is, or will be," he says.

"Say this factory takes a billion dollars and five to 10years to build. There are maybe 10 of these factories in the world and Albertahas one of them.  [Other countries] areout there and they're just starting to build their factories. China, the UnitedStates are building them.

We already have that factory and we're not even doing themaintenance on it. We're not even slapping a coat of paint on it."