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$30M Amii investment into AI an 'enormous step forward' for research

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A $30-million injection into the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) will help recruit top artificial intelligence talent to Edmonton to drive research and technology development with the University of Alberta.

On Tuesday, Amii announced the new funding — to be provided over five years by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research — will support hiring 20 new AI research chairs and extending funding for four existing faculty members.

Those chairs will look to increase technological understanding of current AI applications, connect research with industry and develop new research to advance the field, U of A president Bill Flanagan explained.

"Adding these AI chairs will boost our global reputation for research excellence and continue to signal to Canada and the world that we are uniquely positioned to tackle some of the world's most pressing challenges," Flanagan said.

The university will focus on employing AI professionals specializing in health, energy, and Indigenous initiatives for health and humanities.

University of Alberta President Bill Flanagan speaks with reporters on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 (CTV News Edmonton/Matt Marsall).

'THE BEST IS YET TO COME'

Cam Linke, Amii CEO, told reporters 11 key researchers had spearheaded AI research over the past decade, so adding another 20 people represents another "enormous step forward" for Edmonton and the province.

AI can be applied to any field because of its endless potential to predict challenges, develop problem modelling and optimize existing processes, Linke said.

While AI is already a powerful tool, Linke says, "the best is yet to come."

"It's still growing like crazy," he added. "That's why we are continuing to invest in research in the area. There's new opportunities and impacts every day."

Amii is already working with more than 100 companies to bridge research the university conducts with companies seeking innovative solutions, Linke said.

Amii bridges AI research with industry experience to promote the technology in various real-world applications (CTV News Edmonton/Matt Marshall).

Osmar Zaiane, U of A computing science professor and Amii research fellow, is working on a project to detect diabetes using retinal images.

"Many of the amazing AI techniques are black boxes. So they are very accurate; they can tell you, for example, this patient has this cancer or whatever, even better than humans," Zaiane shared.

"But when you ask it, 'Why did you make that decision?' It's a black box. It doesn't tell you why. It's just accurate, and that's it.

"We are working on making these black boxes explainable," he added.

Derek MacKenzie is a soil scientist and associate professor in the U of A's Faculty of Agricultural Life Environmental Sciences. He is collaborating with data scientists to glean insights from historical soil data to inform future management practices.

"Artificial intelligence is really useful in seeing patterns. Because we have such a large data set, it's not easy for humans to see patterns and relationships," MacKenzie said.

"It's much easier for a computer to do that," he added. "We are trying to tap into artificial intelligence to see patterns in that or long-term trends… to help us predict output in the future."

For Flanagan, AI's ability to break the boundaries between disciplines and generate new improvements is why it is a key focus for the university.

"It's absolutely extraordinary," he said. "It's a field that applies across the board, and it is expanding our capacity in research in really an exponential fashion.

"It's hard for us to even imagine the impact that it will have on all of our lives in the next 10 to 20 years."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Marek Tkach 

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