Google's "DeepMind" Sets Up Shop in Edmonton

Edmonton, we’ve been Googled.

DeepMind, the London-based artificial intelligence research division of Google, announced Wednesday it was setting up its first international AI research lab in downtown Edmonton.

The 10-person lab, which will operate in partnership with the University of Alberta, will be headed by three of the U of A’s top AI academics: Rich Sutton, Michael Bowling and Patrick Pilarski.

“This is a huge reputational win for the University of Alberta,” said the U of A’s dean of science, Jonathan Schaeffer, himself an AI pioneer. “A lot of people are going to be looking at a map today to see where the hell we are. And that’s a good thing.

“We’ve been one of the best AI research centres in the world for more than 10 years. The academic world knows this, but the business community doesn’t. The DeepMind announcement puts us on the map in a big way. It’s going to wake up a lot of people.”

DeepMind was started in 2011 by British chess prodigy, game designer and cognitive neuroscientist Demis Hassabis, and his two partners, Mustafa Suleyman and Shane Legg, with a focus on AI research — and the financial backing of tech godfathers Elon Musk and Peter Thiel.

In 2014, Google acquired DeepMind for a reported $650 million US. (At the time, there were rumours that Facebook had tried, and failed to buy DeepMind, and that Larry Page, Google’s CEO, has personally negotiated the acquisition.) Today, both companies are owned by Google’s parent firm, Alphabet Inc.

With that tech pedigree, why set up shop in Manulife Place?

The answer starts with Rich Sutton, truly one of the world’s leading experts on reinforcement learning — teaching a computer with “rewards”and “punishments” to learn by experience, as a child or a pet would.

Sutton first met Hassabis in 2011 and started providing advice to DeepMind shortly thereafter. He’ll be leading DeepMind Alberta’s work.

Bowling is one of the world’s leading experts on AI and games. He and his team created groundbreaking computer programs that beat champion human poker players. His research has been essential to DeepMind’s work. Pilarski, an engineer, specializes in adapting AI to medical uses, whether that’s creating intelligent prosthetic limbs or using computers to read and screen medical tests. Simply put, DeepMind wanted them — and they didn’t want to leave Edmonton to move to London.

So DeepMind is coming to them.

“There’s going to be a global head-snap, with people asking, ‘Why are they coming to Edmonton?’ ” joked Pilarski. “But we’ve reached a critical mass here. There’s a kind of stickiness. This is the right place at the right time. It’s like nowhere else in the world.”

The three, who will all continue to teach at the U of A, aren’t just excited about the prospect of DeepMind research here. They’re thrilled some of their best former students are coming back to Edmonton to work for DeepMind. And they’re excited at the prospect of using the DeepMind partnership to recruit more top students.

“A lot of our graduates are dying for a chance to use their education in Edmonton,” said Bowling. “We’re hoping this is a catalyst for more of a tech build-up in Edmonton.”

The province hopes so, too. Over the last 15 years, the Alberta government has invested $40 million in AI and machine learning research, mostly at the U of A.  (That steady funding, in fact, was what lured Sutton and Bowling here in the first place.)

It was a gamble by the Klein government — and every Alberta government since — that may now be paying off.

“We want a place at the global table, and AI can do that for us,” said Laura Kilcrease, CEO of Alberta Innovates, which provided the funding. “Where Google goes, others follow.”

DeepMind Alberta is only employing a handful of people now, she said. But she believes AI research in Edmonton “may end up sparking a group of start-ups in areas we haven’t even thought of yet.”

There is always a danger in over-hyping an announcement like this. Artificial intelligence is so new. It’s too soon to hail AI as the answer to all our economic diversification dreams.

"Is AI going to be the win Edmonton needs and that the province wants? It’s too early to tell,” said Schaeffer.

“But the research DeepMind is doing it going to change the world, not tomorrow, but 10 or 15 years down the road. This is an important opportunity for Rich and Michael and Patrick to change the world. That’s not hyperbole. I’m serious.”

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