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OCIF funded AltaML makes a critical difference for Calgary companies V2

Photo supplied by TransAlta

TransAlta has supplied the electricity that has made progress and innovation possible in Alberta for more than a century and sees artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) as key elements of its business going forward.

The increasing need to be more predictive, more productive and more profitable in a fast-changing economic environment is leading companies in traditional industries such as power generation to embrace digital transformation.

For TransAlta, the ability to generate safe, reliable and affordable power is possible because of a focus on efficiency in all its operations.

“Digital transformation and technology are changing the way we work, whether we like it or not,” says Andrew Nippard, Manager, Innovation & Data, TransAlta. “AI and ML now play a major role in improving our decision-making process and allow us to make better decisions with our assets and our people. Decisions were traditionally made based on gut feel or small amounts of data. Now, we're using data as the leading input to make those decisions within our business. All of this makes us more competitive not only as a company, but also for our customers.”

To help navigate the digital journey, TransAlta is working with AltaML through its Applied AI Lab, a work integrated learning program aimed at closing the gap between technical and applied skills for AI and ML by providing interns with guidance and secure access to real business problems, data and industry partners.

It’s a partnership program that provides the skills, knowledge and processes that are required as the world shifts towards digital transformation across all industries. For this reason, AltaML was chosen to receive funding from the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF) to launch and operate the Applied AI Lab to support the city’s economic diversification and to add to the talent pool in Calgary’s tech ecosystem.

TransAlta is one of four major Calgary-based companies that have joined forces with AltaML for the Applied AI Lab, along with Suncor, ATB Financial and Spartan Controls.

For TransAlta, AI is applied to various aspects of its operations from increasing efficiency of wind turbines to detecting and fixing irregularities among the company’s growing portfolio of energy assets. The key is having the people who can implement and understand the technology.

“We have a growing list of use cases for AI and ML in our company and the process of discovering them, determining the feasibility and moving them forward is important,” Nippard says. “AltaML has been critical in helping us understand what the process is and helping us take an ML project from start to finish to create something that has an impact and can be integrated into our business.”

The Applied AI Lab, which will upskill approximately 240 individuals over a three-year period, offers benefits to the tech ecosystem, talent pool, and its partner companies. It also provides a unique approach to mentorship in applying AI/ML in real-world situations.

For TransAlta, the Applied AI Lab creates an opportunity for an established industry leader to reinvent the way it does business as the world, and the company, undergoes a digital transformation.

“There are many training programs that help build technical ML fluency, but none that offer hands-on experience and mentorship where you are working directly with industry in their environments,” says Danielle Gifford, Senior Manager for Applied AI Lab. “We focus on how to practically apply AI with use cases that align strategically with our partners’ long-term objectives. It pushes you to think about adoption and building ML solutions.”

The Applied AI Lab runs 12-week cohorts where interns work alongside industry partners and AltaML mentors to learn to solve real-world industry problems using data and applied AI. This process involves the interns in defining opportunities, developing models, and providing detailed recommendations to the industry partners.

Since the inaugural cohort began in October 2020, the Applied AI Lab has run two full cohorts, with the third beginning in April 2021. More than 1,000 individuals from across North America applied for the 24 positions available between the first two cohorts. The program led to 87 per cent of graduates finding employment within 60 days of program completion, and multiple use cases and learnings for the industry partners working with the interns.

It’s not just partners who can benefit from AltaML’s Applied AI Lab. The skills interns are learning and putting into practice in their cohorts are priming them to be the much-needed data science talent for Calgary businesses now and in the future.

As companies in Calgary, and around the world, continue to move towards digital transformation, it’s important to have the resources and partnerships available to ensure long-term success and growth. The Applied AI Lab offers exactly that.

“There's a lot of opportunity in this field, and the AI Lab helps service those opportunities readily and quickly. It's a real accelerator for companies,” says Nippard. “We really believe this partnership is critical to our future success and our future competitiveness as a company that integrates AI and ML into our business.”

The Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund was launched by The City of Calgary in 2018 to support investments that spur growth and create jobs in strategic sectors identified in the economic strategy Calgary in the New Economy.

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