Cam Linke, CEO at Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) – Interview Series

      

Cam Linke is the CEO of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) Over the past 10 years, he has worked as a CEO, investor, community builder, product manager, entrepreneur, academic, and developer. Past roles include Co-founder of Startup Edmonton, Founder of Flightpath Ventures, CEO of Touch Metric, Product Manager at Nexopia.com, and Founder of DemoCamp Edmonton.

Linke is a sought-after speaker and mentor and has been recognized as Avenue Magazine Top 40 Under 40. He is also an artificial intelligence researcher, currently studying under Dr. Richard Sutton and Dr. Adam White. His research, which focuses on AI adapting behaviors’ to improve their own self-learning, has been published at top conferences.

We sat down for an interview at the annual 2023 Upper Bound conference on AI that is held in Edmonton, AB and hosted by Amii.

You previously co-founded Startup Edmonton. Could you share some details on how that process started and what your mindset was?

Startup Edmonton was a culmination of a lot of work that Ken, who I co-founded Startup Edmonton with, and myself, were doing as one-off pieces, just trying to either solve problems or do things to help build the community.  I’d started an event called DemoCamp basically to be able to show off the cool things that were being built in the city and to have a chance for the startup and tech community to be able to come together and talk. And it was one of these situations where there’s a lot of cool things happening in the city, but nobody knew about them and nobody knew about each other because there wasn’t really a chance for people to connect. DemoCamp was one, and BarCamp was a little bit bigger version of that.

We ran a thing called Founders and Funders, trying to connect founders and investors earlier outside of the angel groups or pitch competitions, to build a stronger network between those groups. We had started running TEDx at the time, it was just a growing number of things that we were doing, eventually, hit a point where we looked at three things. One was we wanted to coordinate efforts a little bit more across all the things that we were doing together. We needed an organization for that. The other part is we were doing a lot of event-driven things, and that was great, but we see the community come together, there’d be a lot of energy, then that would dissipate a lot between events because there wasn’t really that central place that people were, entrepreneurs, people in tech, were spending regular amounts of time. We really need to have space co-working, hot desking. These types of things didn’t really exist in the city at the time.

And then the third one was just early funding like here’s your first $10,000 check just to get going. Funding like that didn’t really exist. We officially launched Startup Edmonton at that point, opened a space in the Mercer Building over on 104th there to be able to have both the space, to be able to have events and more community-driven things, have co-workings so that early stage startups and early stage entrepreneurs were able to be around each other and wasn’t this just one-off every couple months. To be able to be around each other, learn, and grow from each other. And then, at that time, we also raised and launched a fund called FlightPath Ventures, and we were the first check for a number of startups to solve those challenges that we were seeing.

What common traits have you seen in founders that you’ve invested in?

The biggest thing that defines founders and entrepreneurs is they’re problem solvers and they’re builders. If you look at every one of the companies that ended up doing well in our portfolio, if you look at the founders in town or around the world, they look for problems to solve and opportunities to be able to create change, and then they’re builders. It’s not like I can point at the problem and tell you that problem exists. I’m going to be the one building the solution to do that, to solve this.  Poppy Barley was an early company we invested in. Women finding boots and footwear that fits the problem that they sought to solve. And now they’ve got this great company, Poppy Barley, and this incredible brand that’s doing that. Builders and problem solvers are ultimately, to me, the defining trade of entrepreneurs.

You’ve launched a lot of businesses, what drives you personally?

I don’t have any grand life plan or anything like that. I like building interesting things with interesting people. I like solving problems and I like being around people that like to solve problems. And Startup Edmonton was certainly that. When we raised FlightPath, same thing. Here at Amii, we have a group of people that love to build things and love to solve problems. And being around that group is just incredibly exciting. So just solving interesting things with interesting people is the big thing for me.

Amii was founded in 2002. Could you share the genesis story behind this organization?

Why the heck is Edmonton one of the places leading the world in this AI and machine learning thing? Because that not what everybody would’ve guessed. If you go back in time to the 2001, 2002 time period, there’s a few things. University of Alberta has always been a great place for AI. I’ve always been like, for a long time, early. I think it was the first Computing Science PhD program in Canada if I recall, but early Computing Science pioneers as a university in AI overall, with people like Jonathan Schaeffer, Randy Goebel, Russ Greiner, they had a solid group of people in AI in the Computing Science Department there really looked at it and, at the same time, so in this 2001, 2002 time period, the Alberta government had launched the Alberta Ingenuity Centers Program.

So we have the opportunity to take some of the money that we’ve made here in energy, oil and gas, and invested in what the future of the province is going to be. They invested in a few centers across the province. And Randy, Russ, Rob, and Jonathan came together and said, hey, you know what? This area of machine learning is really going to be a driving force, is going to be important going forward, and we have the ingredients to be leaders in that. This should be what a center is based around. The Alberta Ingenuity Center for Machine Learning was the initial center that was created. And that investment in ongoing research and the ability for people to both attract and train incredible grad students and be able to do forward-looking discovery-based research was ultimately what the center was founded on.

And because of that, we’re able to track some incredible researchers here. At the time, we were able to track Rich Sutton, Michael Bowling, Dale Schuurmans, some of the initial group there who are now pioneers and the global leaders in reinforcement learning and other areas of machine learning overall. That initial investment at the time led to Edmonton being one of the three centers of excellence nationally when the feds launched the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy.

Part of the mandate for government funding has been healthcare research. What is the most interesting research you see in this area at Amii?

When you look at the challenges that exist in the world, healthcare is certainly one that’s right up there. To be able to use machine learning or artificial intelligence to have a meaningful impact there is just so important. We’ve been fortunate to be part of a number of both research projects. Osmar R. Zaiane and Yutaka Yasui, two of our fellows, won a Thailand innovation award for a small scale tuberculosis diagnosis project that they built to reduce the time to do tuberculosis diagnosis. Recruiting J. Ross Mitchell here who sits in the faculty of Medicine and splits his time between being in clinic and learning about the challenges that clinicians are facing, and then being able to use that or use machine learning to solve those problems.

Having Ross here and the work that he’s doing on things like image colorization on large language models in the healthcare setting and how to make sure that we can be successful there is really important. There’s no end to the ability for AI to have an impact on the healthcare system and we’re continuing to drive more and more research forward in the area.

There’s a lot of research on prosthetics as well, which I’ve learned, which is quite interesting.

Patrick Pilarski has a lab in the faculty of Medicine as well, really focused on artificial limb research. And his lab’s really interesting. It’s got three parts. One of his co-researchers is looking at what sensors we can attach to the human body to get more and more rich signals from someone, from an amputee as an example. Then in the middle part of their lab, they’re looking at how can we engineer different limbs. They’ve created their own open source limb platform for people to be able to work and do research like this on. And then the core of his lab there is how do we use machine learning in his case?

Again, how do we use reinforcement learning to be able to have the limb learn about the user and not just the user learn about the limb because, ultimately, the ideal world would be, you have an amputee who’s able to use their limb in the way you and I use ours and not have to think about toggling through switches to be able to move over to the risk control and toggling through switches to align my hand or my arm up correctly with my cup of coffee. But for a limb to be able to learn what the user’s trying to do, what their intent is at the moment, and to be able to be a partner just like your limbs and my limbs are to us. It’s fascinating research that they’re doing there and some incredibly interesting and groundbreaking work.

Outside of healthcare, what other type of interesting research are your teams conducting?

We’re pretty broad across all areas of machine learning, which is really interesting. You have a whole lot of fish who’s doing work on machine learning in the brain and being able to learn about how the brain processes inputs and what we can learn from as we’re building machine learning systems. The work that Martha and Adam White are working on around water treatment. How do we better enable both more efficient water treatment plants, but also how do we allow these plants to be able to operate more autonomously when you have a labor shortage and a skill shortage in being able to deploy our treatment systems. There’s just a lot of fun stuff being done by our team. The pioneering work and fundamental work being done by people like Rich and Mike, the fundamentals of reinforcement learning and the fundamentals of really learning period are interesting and really incredible. I probably could go on forever with interesting stuff being done by all of our group. It’s fun.

What would be a moonshot commercial application that you’d like to see from any of this research?

What would I’d like to see as a moonshot? I think the water treatment stuff is super interesting. Living in this city we have great water, this is awesome. We take it for granted that this is just a normal thing. There’s a lot of communities that don’t have clean drinking water. And this is a challenge. There’s a massive global challenge. It’s a challenge we shouldn’t have, but do in Canada and North America, and around the world. If we can make a really big dent in that and we can solve that problem, that’s an enormous opportunity right there.

It doesn’t take too much looking outside. And unfortunately, a lot of North America has seen the smoke from the fires that seem to pop up more and more across the continent every year, from that to everything with the pandemic, and being able to be prepared for that through to, as we mentioned, healthcare and the rising cost of healthcare, and then things like supply chain and food security, these types of things. There are just so many big challenges that, to me, it’s not about one moonshot, but it’s about how do we use what I would argue is the most important tool of our time, to solve these truly huge global challenges. And we need every tool possible and every opportunity possible to be able to do that and to be able to leverage AI. To be able to make meaningful impact on those problems is really exciting.

What is your vision for the future of AI?

To me, it’s really this piece of being able to leverage the ongoing scientific advances that we’re making and the really awesome people that we’re training, to be able to go after and solve these huge problems. To me, that’s really what we do here at Amii, which is both invest in fundamental research and training and help lay the groundwork for these big advances to be able to happen, but make sure there that there’s a bridge to having that impact out in the world.

Working with companies on connecting talent, on connecting opportunities, helping make sure new startups are able to be created out of this, and really upping the overall understanding and literacy of as many people as possible in AI is really, really important for us because this is just this incredible tool that we need to have everybody have as much of an understanding of as possible so it can have the biggest and most positive impact it possibly can. That, to me, are the things that we’re driving here at Amii and what I think the future of AI is going to be going forward.

Is there any specific type of company that should have Amii on the radar to approach them?

Every company should have us on their radar. We work with companies from one or two people through to some of the largest companies in the world, and it’s really about meeting them where they’re at and helping them accelerate their AI journey. For startups, it might be helping them identify where machine learning can have a meaningful impact right now, can give them a competitive advantage in the product that they’re launching. For a company that’s raised a series A or series B, they’re really serious about growing their machine learning team and making sure that they’re making meaningful investments that are both going to have an impact now, but also going to have an impact over the multi-year timeframe of that funding that they raised, we have programs and stuff built for them.

Through to medium to large companies who know that AI is going to be a major component of their industry going forward and need to understand where and how and what things they should be investing in and how do I stay on both the cutting edge of research or understand what’s being done there through to how do I make sure that I’m actually having meaningful business impact out of this right now. We work with companies on everything in that entire spectrum. If you’re interested in AI, we’re set up to be able to work with you.

Should the companies be in Canada or can it just be international?

We work with companies in Canada. We work with companies around the world.

Thank you for the amazing interview, readers who wish to learn more should visit the following resources:

Upper Bound AI Conference.
Amii (Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute)

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