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New AI lab in Alberta will help train students for a digital economy

The public lab will welcome a new cohort of students and public service employees every four months.

BY CAILYNN KLINGBEIL | JUL 22 2022

At a new public-sector lab in Alberta, postsecondary students and graduates, government employees, and staff at an artificial intelligence (AI) company work together to solve real-world problems in the public realm.

Celia Wanderley is head of AltaML Invent and the chief customer officer at AltaML, the Canadian artificial intelligence company partnering with the Alberta government for the new lab, which is the first of its kind in the province. She said AltaML approached the government with the idea after the company launched a similar but private sector applied-AI lab and talent accelerator in Calgary two years ago.

“We started to see way more demand than we could really intake,” she recalled. “It was pretty clear: Why couldn’t this work in the public sector as well? The public sector has amazing problems to be solved and has a lot of data.”

The government agreed, recognizing the potential of a lab to train students for a digital economy and provide public service employees with new skills, while also creating solutions that could be commercialized and improve government services.

Called GovLab.ai, it will solve problems in a “very real way that will help make life better for all Albertans,” said Nate Glubish, minister of Service Alberta, in announcing the project on May 3 . Mr. Glubish, who said he holds the unofficial government title of “resident tech geek,” said the lab was using AI to better predict when and where wildfires will start in Alberta. That could lead to cost savings through prevention and better allocating resources to fight fires.

AltaML has committed $1 million toward the first year of operations, while the Alberta government says it will invest $3.4 million annually. Mitacs, a non-profit national research organization, is also involved, providing funding to support job opportunities for postsecondary students.

Government recognition

For those in Alberta’s AI community, the announcement is exciting. “The first thing that I thought was that this signals a recognition by our provincial government on the potential of AI for actually solving processes within the government,” said Eleni Stroulia, acting vice-dean of the University of Alberta’s faculty of science and a professor in the department of computing science.

“The second aspect of it is the involvement of students. This is a huge opportunity for experiential learning for the students who will be working in these activities,” Dr. Stroulia said, adding that students also benefit from the cohort structure of working alongside peers.

However, Dr. Stroulia does see one missed opportunity. “I wish there was a more specific role for university researchers in that partnership,” she said. She points to the triple helix model of innovation that involves government, industry and academia. Universities, Dr. Stroulia said, have broader and deeper expertise than a single company or government. The U of A consistently ranks as one of the top three institutions worldwide for AI research.

Ms. Wanderley does view universities as partners, as they provide the talent entering the lab. But she disagrees with concerns that the lab could be viewed as government pushing universities to steer students into the AI sector. The lab gives students data literacy skills that are beneficial in many professions. If students decide to take different career paths, they’ll bring valuable skills with them, Ms. Wanderley said.

For AltaML, running a public AI lab with locations in Calgary and Edmonton, in addition to a private lab, is about thinking creatively to build a talent pipeline that benefits the company as well as the entire industry. “If we just wait for solutions to come up, we’re all going to be here complaining that we don’t have enough talent for a very long time,” Ms. Wanderley said.

Students’ experiences

Once it’s fully operational this summer, GovLab.ai will welcome a new cohort every four months, made up of students (which will be called associates) and public service employees (called residents). For now, employees will come from the government of Alberta, but Ms. Wanderley said the lab hopes to see involvement from other organizations too, such as crown corporations and municipalities.

Guided by AltaML’s team, including senior data scientists, the associates and residents receive training and work together to use data and code to solve specific problems. Some students involved have technical skills in computer science, while others bring an interest or background in business.

Gabriella Carvalho just finished her first year of undergraduate studies in arts at the U of A, majoring in political science. She’s now one of five associates in the lab’s pilot cohort, which got underway in May. “Given that I’m studying politics, the government lab really intrigued me because it’s working with the public sector,” said Ms. Carvalho, a business solutions consultant associate. She’s enjoying “working for the greater good” to solve problems, and said the experience has helped her to think in new ways and pushed her outside her comfort zone.

Bruce Nie is a master’s student in computing science at the U of A, set to graduate in December. He’s currently working at the lab as an associate machine learning developer. Mr. Nie said he’s enjoying “building something deployable and scalable,” which is “very different from doing research.”

Mr. Nie moved to Edmonton from Shanghai in 2016 for his undergraduate studies. This is his first experience at a talent accelerator, and he said he’s been struck by the mentorship and support he is receiving. “They just treat this as a four-month training program that’s focused on me, instead of focusing on the advancement of the company,” Mr. Nie said. “It’s given me high hopes for my future career.”

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