When University of Alberta pediatric neurology professor Lawrence Richer decided to map a route to aid the university “democratize and decentralize” access to medicine in the province, he realized he would require the raw computing power of a cloud services provider.
Richer, who is the centre director of the Northern Alberta Clinical Trials and Research Centre and associate dean of research in the College of Health Sciences, states that bringing clinical trials to individuals in rural and remote areas is a movement happening around the world but is uniquely applicable to the province’s geography.
“In the Alberta context, if a person who has that condition wishes to participate in a clinical trial and they reside in Grande Prairie or Fort McMurray, it’s challenging for them to get to Edmonton. We need to transform the way we deliver trials, and digital technology is a method to achieve that,” he commented.
However, for an app to be released, it needs to transition off a researcher’s computer and into the cloud so it can reach the world.
“If we’re discussing truly innovating in the health space, particularly around artificial intelligence, we need to collaborate with a technology leader who has the compute resources to truly accomplish something substantial,” he says. “It is a monumental step to be able to innovate and engage in intriguing activities at the pace of the idea, not at the pace that it takes to secure funding for IT equipment like servers.”
In a move to hasten the speed of discoveries by U of A researchers and make artificial intelligence skills training more accessible for Edmonton’s thriving tech sector, the U of A and Amazon Web Services (AWS) have partnered to introduce Artificial Intelligence Discovery Place.
Beyond bringing medicine directly into households while amassing data in patients’ home environments, Richer mentions this computing power is being utilized to employ AI to diagnose any number of ailments.
For instance, AI can aid radiologists in examining medical scans and determining whether a disease is present. To make this a reality, an AI model must be trained on tens of thousands of images with accurately labeled data by radiologists across the globe.
“AWS is collaborating with medical organizations and researchers globally. Having access to their expertise and AI services will benefit our research community and our innovation community,” says Richer.
“If an experiment achieves success in the initial 50 instances we test it on, we can expand it to 50,000, 100,000, and beyond with the cloud.”
Coral Kennett, education lead with AWS Canada, states that the adaptability the cloud offers is the most attainable way to experiment with AI and machine learning. “Without it, developing and training artificial intelligence models would be too challenging and expensive for most organizations.”
Situated in the southwest corner of the first floor at the University of Alberta’s downtown Enterprise Square, this expansion will employ AWS Cloud computing technology to propel research and innovation in AI. Additionally, the centre will provide U of A researchers — faculty and students — the capacity to acquire valuable AI skills while generating solutions that address industry, government, and societal challenges.
This transpires at a time when, according to a recent AWS Digital Skills Study, 83 per cent of businesses anticipate using AI-powered solutions, but three-quarters state they are unable to recruit the AI talent they require. Moreover, Canadian employers are willing to pay up to 25 per cent more when hiring personnel with AI skills.
“To unlock the full potential of AI to tackle the world’s most challenging problems, we need to make AI education and services accessible to anyone with a desire to learn. With the Artificial Intelligence Discovery Place, AWS and the University of Alberta are collaborating to democratize access to AI technology,” says Kennett. “We are thrilled to support faculty and students as they utilize AWS cloud services to spearhead groundbreaking research in all sectors of society.”
The new agreement is the most recent development in a flourishing relationship that initially took shape in 2016 when the U of A first joined forces with AWS. From there, the U of A expanded the relationship when it migrated hundreds of websites and resources that form its digital ecosystem to the AWS Cloud. This allowed the university to consolidate its digital strategy and broaden its global reach.
This move was part of a long-standing strategic vision to establish the U of A as a worldwide leader in AI. Central to this pursuit was the establishment in 2002 of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) — one of Canada’s three national AI hubs.
“For over a quarter century, the University of Alberta has consistently ranked among the top three universities globally for AI, machine learning, and data mining. Our AI research and teaching prowess is a pivotal element in constructing Alberta’s reputation as a province where imaginative and entrepreneurial thinking thrives,” states U of A president Bill Flanagan. “Incorporating a collaborator such as Amazon Web Services, with prominence and access to resources, raises the stakes.”
This announcement follows the unveiling of a new data centre hub in Calgary by AWS in December 2023, making it the first major cloud services provider to have an infrastructure region in Western Canada.
“The Artificial Intelligence Discovery Place reiterates AWS’s commitment to stimulate more innovation with advanced technologies such as AI and machine learning nationwide,” says Kennett. “The enhanced performance facilitated by the AWS Canada West (Calgary) Region is another pivotal factor in assisting advancing organizations to push the boundaries by harnessing the power of AI and ML.“
“It is incredibly thrilling to witness that Amazon Web Services is broadening their presence in Alberta by collaborating with a leading global institution of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the University of Alberta, and solidifying Alberta’s position at the forefront of innovation,” says Nate Glubish, minister of technology and innovation for Alberta.