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Research at the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute at the University of Alberta aims to apply AI solutions to solve real-world challenges.SUPPLIED

Inside one of the oldest buildings on the University of Alberta (U of A) campus, researchers are putting artificial intelligence to work in a leading-edge energy retrofit of historic significance.

Data from sensors, climate reports, wireless router usage and occupancy will inform decision-making software that controls the lights, heat and air conditioning systems of the 101-year-old dentistry and pharmacy centre. When work finishes in 2024, the newly named University Commons will continuously optimize systems to be more energy efficient, says project lead and computing science professor Eleni Stroulia.

Among its many uses, “machine learning can use historical data to predict the future,” says Dr. Stroulia, whose research includes smart buildings and software engineering. “If you can predict the future implications of alternative ‘what if’ scenarios, you can make well-informed decisions.”

When complete, University Commons will be a fitting homage to the university’s expertise in computing science and artificial intelligence. In 1964, the U of A became the first Canadian university with a computing science department. Today, it’s a global leader in AI. Its first major achievement was in 1994 when the Chinook checkers program, developed by professor Jonathan Schaeffer, bested the world’s top player. Later milestones were realized with other games-based research, like the DeepStack poker algorithm and the AlphaGo program, created by an alumnus, that beat a world champion in the board game Go.

It’s that kind of research that has earned the university its high ranking in artificial intelligence and machine learning. “Besides other purposes, games are great test beds for AI,” says Nathan Sturtevant, a computing science professor in artificial intelligence and the director of Amii (Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute) at the U of A. Games bring structure, repetition and reinforcement to AI. “It’s an environment that is well controlled. It helps us understand how we solve problems.”

AI is fundamental; today, it is basically akin to reading, writing and arithmetic. There’s no way you can do anything without understanding the data generated in your discipline and what to do with it.

Eleni Stroulia, Computing Science Professor, University of Alberta

Understanding the “how” allows researchers to apply the technology to problems outside the game. And problem-solving happens at the Amii centre at the U of A, which is connected to one of three Canadian hubs of AI excellence (along with Montreal’s Mila and Toronto’s Vector Institute). The centre started operation in 2002 and grew from research at the U of A. Now, this expertise goes well beyond games with researchers partnering to apply AI solutions to some real-world challenges.

One Amii-funded project at the U of A, led by Martha White, is using AI to analyze processes at a water treatment plant in the town of Drayton Valley, Alta. The project aims to optimize the treatment of water, Dr. Sturtevant explains, which directly results in more efficient use of energy resources from the outset of the project.

AI models are also increasingly important in oil and gas as researchers seek to address the effects of industry, such as water use in the oilsands and remediation for orphan wells, says Dr. Stroulia.

Projects like this bring together the university’s 100 years of expertise in energy research and its 25 years in AI, says Aminah Robinson Fayek, the U of A’s vice-president of research and innovation. “By bringing together our expertise in these areas, the U of A is accelerating our impact. We are opening pathways to solve pressing issues.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration is a big part of the U of A’s efforts to use AI for good. “AI is fundamental; today, it is basically akin to reading, writing and arithmetic,” Dr. Stroulia says. “There’s no way you can do anything without understanding the data generated in your discipline and what to do with it.”

This mindset is part of a campaign to hire 20 new AI researchers at the U of A. Of these, five will be computing science experts; the rest will hail from a variety of sectors, from chemistry and medicine to Indigenous leadership and energy.

“Who’s getting Nobel Prizes in 15 or 20 years because of the novel use of AI today?” Dr. Sturtevant asks. “And how can we facilitate that at the University of Alberta?”

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