Amazon Web Services, U of A team up to make the power of AI more accessible

Cloud computing collaboration will spur world-leading research and expand the talent base of trained professionals in Alberta.


(From left) Cristian Gonzalez-Paez, acting associate VP of enterprise; Bill Flanagan, U of A president; Coral Kennett, head of education with AWS Canada; David James, deputy minister of technology and innovation; Elan MacDonald, VP of external relations; Aminah Robinson Fayek, VP of research and innovation, and Lawrence Richer, associate dean of research in the College of Health Sciences, were at Enterprise Square today to announce the creation of Artificial Intelligence Discovery Place, a collaboration between the U of A and Amazon Web Services. (Photo: Alex Pugliese)

When University of Alberta pediatric neurology professor Lawrence Richer set out to chart a path to help the university “democratize and decentralize” access to medicine in the province, he realized he would need 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, says bringing clinical trials to people in rural and remote areas is a movement happening around the world but is uniquely relevant to the province’s geography.

“In the Alberta context, if a person who has that condition wants to participate in a clinical trial and they live in Grande Prairie or Fort McMurray, it’s hard for them to get to Edmonton. We need to change the way we deliver trials, and digital technology is a way to do that.”

However, for an app to be released, it needs to move off a researcher’s computer and into the cloud so it can reach the world.

“If we’re talking about really innovating in the health space, particularly around artificial intelligence, we need to work with a technology leader who has the compute resources to really do something substantial,” he says. “It is a monumental leap to be able to innovate and do interesting things at the pace of the idea, not at the pace that it takes to find funding for IT equipment like servers.”

In an effort to accelerate the speed of discoveries by U of A researchers and make artificial intelligence skills training more accessible for Edmonton’s burgeoning tech sector, the U of A and Amazon Web Services (AWS) have teamed up to launch Artificial Intelligence Discovery Place.

Beyond bringing medicine directly into households while collecting data in patients’ home environments, Richer says this computing power is being harnessed to use AI to diagnose any number of ailments.

For example, AI can help radiologists look at medical scans and say whether a disease is present. To make this happen, an AI model needs to be trained on tens of thousands of images with precisely labelled data by radiologists all over the world.

“AWS is working with medical organizations and researchers around the world. Having access to their expertise and AI services will benefit our research community and our innovation community,” says Richer.

“If an experiment works in the first 50 cases we try it on, we can scale it to 50,000, 100,000, and on and on with the cloud.”

Coral Kennett, education lead with AWS Canada, says the flexibility the cloud offers is the most accessible way to experiment with AI and machine learning. “Without it, developing and training artificial intelligence models would be too difficult and costly for most organizations.”

Located in the southwest corner of the first floor at the University of Alberta’s downtown Enterprise Square, this expansion will use AWS Cloud computing technology to advance research and innovation in AI. As well, the centre will give U of A researchers — faculty and students — the ability to gain valuable AI skills while creating solutions that address industry, government and societal challenges.

It comes at a time when, according to a recent AWS Digital Skills Study, 83 per cent of businesses expect to use AI-powered solutions, but three-quarters say they’re unable to hire the AI talent they need. Moreover, Canadian employers are willing to pay up to 25 per cent more when hiring employees 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 working together to democratize access to AI technology,” says Kennett. “We are excited to support faculty and students as they use AWS cloud services to advance groundbreaking research in all areas of society.”

The new agreement is the latest in a blossoming relationship that originally took root in 2016 when the U of A first signed on with AWS. From there, the U of A grew the relationship when it moved hundreds of websites and resources that make up its digital ecosystem to the AWS Cloud. This enabled the university to unify its digital strategy and expand its global reach.

That move was part of a decades-old strategic vision to make the U of A a global leader in AI. Key to this pursuit was the creation in 2002 of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) — one of Canada’s three national AI hubs.

“For more than 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 strength is a key part in building Alberta’s reputation as a province where innovative and entrepreneurial thinking thrives,” says U of A president Bill Flanagan. “Bringing in a collaborator like Amazon Web Services, with visibility and access to resources, ups the stakes.”

This announcement comes on the heels of AWS opening a new data centre hub in Calgary in December 2023, becoming the first major cloud services provider to have an infrastructure region in Western Canada.

“The Artificial Intelligence Discovery Place reaffirms AWS’s commitment to fuel more innovation with advanced technologies like AI and machine learning across the country,” says Kennett. “The improved performance enabled by the AWS Canada West (Calgary) Region is another key factor in helping advancing organizations go even further by harnessing the power of AI and ML.“

“It is incredibly exciting to see that Amazon Web Services is expanding their footprint in Alberta by teaming up with a preeminent global institution of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the University of Alberta, and cementing Alberta’s position at the forefront of innovation,” says Nate Glubish, minister of technology and innovation for Alberta.