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– Huawei Supports Establishment of Richard Sutton’s AI Research Center in Alberta

Sutton, a professor at the University of Alberta, is launching the Openmind Research Institute base…

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On November 23, esteemed AI researcher Richard Sutton, a prominent system scientist, was present at his residence in Edmonton, Alberta. With the support of Huawei, Professor Sutton is initiating a cutting-edge Artificial Intelligence research institute in Edmonton. This initiative is covered by Amber Bracken from The Globe and Mail.

Following governmental restrictions on Huawei’s collaboration with officially endorsed institutions, a distinguished artificial intelligence expert is establishing a new non-profit venture with $4.8 million in funding from Huawei Canada.

The inception of the Openmind Research Institute will enable researchers to leverage the Alberta Plan, a comprehensive guide co-authored by Professor Sutton last year. This plan delineates a strategic framework for advancing the development of AI agents capable of human-level cognition.

Professor Richard Sutton, a trailblazer in the field of reinforcement learning and a faculty member at the University of Alberta, envisions Openmind as a catalyst for pioneering AI research. The institute, headquartered in Edmonton, will kick off its activities with a retreat in Banff starting this Friday.

In response to concerns over Huawei’s alleged ties to the Chinese government, which could potentially exploit the company for espionage, Canada recently prohibited the use of Huawei equipment in 5G networks. Despite Huawei’s consistent denial of these accusations, skepticism persists.

The involvement of Jim Hinton, a resident of Waterloo, Ontario, in Huawei’s collaboration with Openmind has raised eyebrows. As a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and an established patent attorney, Hinton highlights the subtle influence wielded by Huawei, even in the absence of stringent restrictions. He emphasizes the importance of scrutinizing the financial dynamics to prevent undue control.

In 2021, Ottawa initiated restrictions on funding for research partnerships between public institutions and entities associated with nations deemed security threats, such as China. Alberta has followed suit by imposing similar constraints on sensitive research areas due to the dual-use nature of AI technology, which can be exploited for military purposes or malicious intent.

Professor Sutton views the financial backing from Openmind and Huawei as an opportunity to challenge prevailing narratives and exemplify mutually beneficial collaborations. He views this partnership with China as a fruitful endeavor that propels AI research in Canada to new heights.

All research conducted under the aegis of Openmind, distinct from Professor Sutton’s role at the University of Alberta, will be open-source, with no intentions of claiming intellectual property rights.

Huawei, in alignment with Openmind’s ethos, has demonstrated a willingness to support unrestricted research endeavors, surprising Professor Sutton with their hands-off approach.

Despite unanswered queries directed at Huawei, the Chinese conglomerate continues to engage directly with select researchers, circumventing restrictions imposed on their involvement in 5G networks and exclusive partnerships with Canadian universities.

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a prominent figure at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society, and Policy, suggests that companies like Huawei, linked to the Chinese military, seek alternative avenues to bypass regulatory constraints, such as engaging experts outside traditional academic settings. This circumvention strategy underscores China’s strategic resilience in navigating regulatory hurdles.

Professor Sutton’s expertise in reinforcement learning, a pivotal technique for developing AI agents capable of task execution in diverse environments, underscores the significance of this technology in applications ranging from autonomous vehicles to enhancing chatbot functionalities like ChatGPT.

Having pursued his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts in 1984, Professor Sutton relocated to the University of Alberta in 2003, establishing the Reinforcement Learning and Artificial Intelligence Lab. His migration from the United States to Canada was partly motivated by ideological differences with the Bush administration’s policies and the prevailing socio-political climate.

Following his tenure at Alphabet Inc., where he oversaw AI research through DeepMind in Edmonton until its closure in January, Professor Sutton remains committed to unraveling the complexities of intelligence. His current endeavors at the University of Alberta and with Keen Technologies, a U.S.-based AI firm founded by John Carmack, reflect his unwavering pursuit of understanding intelligence and developing sophisticated AI systems.

Openmind, a brainchild of Professor Sutton, represents another milestone in his quest for advancing artificial general intelligence (AGI) – software capable of complex decision-making and goal attainment. Contrary to the prevailing trend of large language models like ChatGPT, Professor Sutton prioritizes the development of AI systems that mimic human cognitive abilities, emphasizing collaboration and problem-solving as key components of intelligent behavior.

In collaboration with Randy Goebel, a machine science professor at the University of Alberta, and Joseph Modayil, former employees of DeepMind, Professor Sutton assumes a pivotal role on Openmind’s board of directors. Mr. Modayil also serves as the institute’s research lead.

Professor Sutton’s enduring fascination with cognitive science underscores his commitment to unraveling the mysteries of the human mind, a pursuit that has shaped his academic journey for over two decades.

The selection of research fellows at Openmind, overseen by a committee comprising esteemed co-authors of the Alberta Plan and University of Alberta academics Michael Bowling and Patrick Pilarski, underscores the institute’s commitment to fostering interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation.

While Huawei’s support enhances Openmind’s research capabilities, concerns persist regarding the potential exploitation of research outcomes by multinational corporations adept at leveraging intellectual property for commercial gain. The delicate balance between fostering innovation and safeguarding intellectual property remains a point of contention, particularly in the realm of AI research.

Professor Sutton’s advocacy for open-source principles and skepticism towards intellectual property laws reflect his belief in fostering a collaborative research environment free from legal constraints that stifle innovation. He underscores the importance of prioritizing research integrity over proprietary interests to propel scientific discovery and technological advancement.

As Openmind embarks on its research endeavors, Professor Sutton remains resolute in ensuring that Huawei’s involvement does not compromise the institute’s autonomy or research agenda. He envisions this partnership as a mutually beneficial collaboration that transcends geopolitical tensions, fostering a conducive environment for groundbreaking AI research in Canada.

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Last modified: February 15, 2024
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