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AI company that conquered Go game opens office in Edmonton

From left, University of Alberta professors Richard Sutton, Michael Bowling and Patrick Pilarski are working with DeepMind to open the AI powerhouse company's first research lab outside the United Kingdom in Edmonton.

John Ulan/Globe and Mail Update

One of the world's best known companies in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) is setting up shop in Alberta.

DeepMind Technologies Ltd., a U.K. firm that was acquired by Google in 2014 and is now part of Google's parent company Alphabet Inc., announced on Wednesday that it is establishing a satellite research office in Edmonton, a key hub for AI in Canada.

Three University of Alberta professors will lead the effort, including Richard Sutton, who is known for his pioneering work in a form of AI called reinforcement learning. The others are Michael Bowling, whose team this year produced a program that can play a version of poker as well as human professionals, and Patrick Pilarski, whose work includes applying artificial intelligence to rehabilitative medicine.

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Dr. Sutton and his colleagues will divide their time between DeepMind and their current roles at the university's Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute. They will be joined by seven more researchers hired by DeepMind including some who are returning to Canada after working in the United States and U.K.

"In a way, this is sort of full circle for us," Demis Hassabis, CEO and co-founder of London-based DeepMind, told The Globe and Mail. "We've worked with Rich [Sutton] as a collaborator for many years, so it's great now to be able to formalize it and invest back locally in Edmonton to create our first international office."

DeepMind made headlines last year when it debuted the first computer program capable of beating the reigning world champion at the game of Go, a long-standing goal in the AI world that many experts had thought was still years away from being achieved. The project, which incorporated reinforcement learning into its algorithm, was led by two DeepMind programmers, one who earned his PhD at the University of Alberta and another who did postdoctoral work there.

But the company's Alberta connection goes back further, to a 2010 conference in Switzerland when Dr. Hassabis and future DeepMind co-founder Shane Legg found themselves sitting across from Dr. Sutton at a pizza dinner.

"The pizza wasn't very good but the conversation was great," Dr. Hassabis said. "We were kind of testing our ideas with people we respected just to see how crazy they thought it was, and Rich was the biggest name professor we'd tried."

Dr. Sutton's enthusiastic support helped generate the impetus to launch DeepMind, he added. Since then, the company has underwritten some of the research in Dr. Sutton's lab. Under the new arrangement, DeepMind will provide additional funding to support long-term AI programs at the university, with details still to be announced.

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"We're just really excited about it. It's a win for all sides," Dr. Sutton said.

The newly minted DeepMind Alberta team will open for business this month in temporary facilities adjacent to the university, Dr. Sutton said. The focus of the new office will be on core scientific research in AI rather than commercial spin-offs.

The announcement draws attention to Alberta's strength in the AI world, which until recently has received less attention than that of Toronto and Montreal. All three centres were identified as focal points for a $125-million funding boost to AI research in the latest federal budget.

The university's dean of science, Jonathan Schaeffer, said the combined investments from government and industry would be crucial for retaining top researchers in an increasingly competitive global race for talent.

"I lose a lot of sleep fearing that our best people are going to be poached," he said.

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