An artificial intelligence lab, whose opening in Edmonton spurred excitement about the future of the AI sector in Alberta’s capital, is set to close, according to a company spokesperson.
In 2017, Alphabet Inc.’s DeepMind firm announced it was opening a research office in Edmonton, marking the first time the company had set up shop outside the U.K.
The Alberta operation was led by several University of Alberta professors and worked on what DeepMind described as “core scientific research.”
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News of the closure was first reported by Bloomberg on Tuesday. A company spokesperson confirmed the news in a statement issued to Global News on Tuesday afternoon.
“DeepMind has made the difficult decision to consolidate its Canadian offices and close the Edmonton office, while maintaining its other Canadian locations in Montréal and Toronto, which are within Google offices,” the statement from the Google parent company read.
“Edmonton is the only international site directly managed by DeepMind (all the rest are in Google-managed offices) and (is) therefore far more resource-intensive to operate.
“The Edmonton-based researchers have been offered the option to relocate to another DeepMind office, such as DeepMind Montréal, based in Google’s Montréal office, which will continue to operate as normal.”
The company spokesperson did not confirm when the Edmonton office would close or how many staff are expected to be impacted by the development.
Global News reached out to the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) for reaction to news of the closure. The CEO of the organization, which partners with companies on innovation strategies, said learning of the development “hits close to home as it impacts many of our peers and friends in the DeepMind office and our tech community at large.”
“The closure of the DeepMind office is an example of global tech workforce trends and its impact on the local community — and unfortunately, Edmonton and Canada are not immune to these pressures,” Cam Linke said in an emailed statement.
“While we begin to process this difficult news, the closure of the office is only one area of impact in our very robust ecosystem. Amii continues to see growth in AI adoption in working with hundreds of companies across Alberta to commercialize and operationalize the technology.”
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News of the DeepMind office’s closure comes amid a recent wave of layoffs in the global tech sector. On Monday, the music streaming service Spotify announced it was cutting six per cent of its global workforce and other major firms like Amazon, Microsoft and Google have also recently announced tens of thousands of job cuts.
Linke said while the DeepMind closure was difficult to hear about, Amii remains “committed to our mandate of advancing AI science as we will continue to invest in AI research in Alberta by increasing our research capacity with world-leading researchers in globally impactful domains.”
“I believe that in time there is potential to refocus and leap into new, interesting and impactful opportunities that will continue to advance Alberta’s AI leadership. I am proud of the collaboration between Amii and DeepMind in building a foundation of AI excellence in Alberta and grateful to the DeepMind Edmonton team as their contributions have been significant to the ecosystem. I have no doubt that what these folks will go on to do next will be incredibly special and impactful.”
Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell, the interim dean and vice-provost at the University of Alberta’s College of Natural and Applied Sciences, said the post-secondary institution was “saddened by the closure of the Edmonton office.”
“We are deeply grateful for partnering with DeepMind since 2017 to enhance our strong legacy of community connections and collaborations,” Kalcounis-Rueppell said in a statement. “Relationships like this one greatly strengthen AI research and impact in Alberta, Canada and beyond.
“Our partnership with DeepMind has been instrumental in helping Edmonton and Alberta’s tech community flourish, drawing in new talent and investment from companies, government and other supporters. We look forward to continuing to advance the world-leading AI ecosystem that we have all built together.”
Kalcounis-Rueppell said while the news of the office closure is sad, the university “will continue to lead in the technology sector as it adapts to global trends.”
Deron Bilous, the Alberta NDP’s economic development and innovation critic, called DeepMind’s closure in Edmonton “terrible news for those workers.”
“(It) is deeply concerning for our city and our tech sector,” Bilous said in a news release. He also called on the provincial government to use tools like tax credits and to increase investment to help the provincial tech sector grow.
A spokesperson for the Jobs, Economy, and Northern Development Ministry said the move was unfortunate but noted it is part of a consolidation trend across the tech sector.
“Alberta’s tech sector is growing rapidly, and as demand for skilled workers grows, we want to be on top of providing Albertans with every opportunity to level up their skills and take part in this expanding industry,” policy advisor Roy Dallmann said in a statement.
“We are helping Albertans take advantage of every opportunity by building a business-friendly climate that encourages investment and growth across industries, including in technology.”
–With a file from The Associated Press