Google's artificial intelligence masterminds move into Edmonton

One of the world’s leading artificial intelligence companies is setting up headquarters in Edmonton.

'It's going to allow us to attract and retain the brightest and the best in the world'

University of Alberta computing science professors Richard Sutton, Michael Bowling and Patrick Pilarski are working with DeepMind to open the firm's first research lab outside the United Kingdom. (University of Alberta)

One of the world's leading artificial intelligence companies is setting up headquarters in Edmonton, signaling a boon for the city's science and technology sector.

DeepMind Ltd, Google's high-profile AI research firm, announced this week that it will open its first lab outside the United Kingdom in the capital region.

As DeepMind co-founder and CEO Demis Hassabis explained in a recent blog entry, the choice of location was no accident.

DeepMind considers the capital region a key hub for AI research in Canada, Hassabis said.

"Collaborating with (the University of Alberta) to open a lab feels like a natural extension of what we do here in London," Hassabis wrote.

"It was a big decision for us to open our first non-U.K. research lab, and the fact we're doing so in Edmonton is a sign of the deep admiration and respect we have for the Canadian research community."

Close partnership with U of A

The satellite office, named DeepMind Alberta, will work in close partnership with the University of Alberta, and three computing science professors — Rich Sutton, Michael Bowling and Patrick Pilarski —  have been recruited to lead the effort.

The men will continue to work in the university's Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute while overseeing the new firm. They will be joined by seven other researchers hired by DeepMind from around the world.

The connections between London-based DeepMind and the U of A are longstanding.

Nearly a dozen University of Alberta graduates have joined the company's ranks over the years, and it has sponsored a machine learning lab to provide additional funding for PhDs.

"There is incredible alignment between DeepMind and the University of Alberta, both famed for their boundary-pushing research," Pilarski said in a statement.

Scientific breakthroughs

"Their complementary areas of expertise are now being combined through DeepMind Alberta, and I look forward to making new scientific breakthroughs together."

Having been acquired by Google in 2014, DeepMind is now part of its parent company Alphabet.

DeepMind made headlines in 2015 when it engineered a computer program capable of beating a professional card player in the ancient Chinese game of Go, a feat many in the industry expected would be out of reach for many years to come.

The company has also won acclaim for its Atari program, a neural network that learns how to play video games like humans do, without external instruction and mimics the short-term memory of the human brain.

The firm is on a scientific mission to push the boundaries of AI, developing programs that can learn to solve complex problems without being taught how.

The new DeepMind Alberta team will open for business this month in temporary facilities close to the the university's main campus.

Robotic wonders and the big picture

Their research has ramifications for such cutting-edge technologies as driverless cars and fully-autonomous robots. 

"They have the big picture," said Jonathan Schaeffer, dean of the faculty of science, and computing science professor.

"They're looking to understand where artificial intelligence will be five, 10, 20 years from now and fund those kind of projects with the expectation that they're going to do revolutionary, not evolutionary research."

DeepMind's decision to expand in Edmonton will allow the university to stay on the cutting edge of new and exciting technological advances in the development of human-like robots, Schaeffer said.  

"We're bringing world-class technology to the city of Edmonton," he said.

"We have, for the last couple of decades, had one of the world's best artificial intelligence research groups in the world in Edmonton.

"It's been a best-kept secret, but with DeepMind coming to town, it's almost like a calling card, an international group recognizes how great we are.

"It's going to allow us to attract and retain the brightest and the best in the world."