For many in Saskatchewan, the idea of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are concepts ingrained in the plot of a futuristic sci-fi movie or something associated with Silicon Valley. The idea that computers can learn and think seems neither real, nor relevant, but nothing could be further from the truth!
Machines may not have a mind of their own, but with the support of engineering and friendly programming, computers can be taught to perform complex calculations on large volumes of raw data, analyzing variables and situations in a fraction of the time that the same analysis could be performed by humans, thus automating decision-making. The applications in industrial, medical, agriculture, and energy management are but a few examples of how AI is currently in use in this province.
One example is the Edmonton-based technology company, StreamML, that has developed a cloud-based machine learning application to conduct rapid spectral analysis of images taken by flying drones over gas lines. The application is taught to recognize the patterns, or tell-tale signs, of fine cracks, corrosion or weaknesses and highlight the image. The use of AI speeds up the process of inspections resulting in safer operation.
The same technology is being used to detect early onset of mold and diseases in the agricultural sector, days before they take hold in a crop. This allows the producer to determine an appropriate intervention or application of chemical. AI is removing the guesswork from the equation, saving time, and helping to avoid the unnecessary costs, and the environmental impact, of excess chemical usage. AI is used in self-driven farm equipment and in analyzing the massive amounts of data that the farm equipment gathers as it moves over the land – everything from soil temperature, moisture content, and nutrient composition to invasive plant species and pests. In addition, the technology can communicate with the equipment manufacturer automatically analyzing factors affecting normal operation, effectively anticipating maintenance issues before they become issues, which saves downtime.
The use of machine learning and AI goes far beyond analytics of farm equipment and field conditions. In the agricultural processing sector, as more of the production becomes automated, these technologies are being used to optimize operations through the collection of data to support decision-making in areas as diverse as food formulation and recipe development, food safety analysis and quality assurance. Saskatchewan-based Protein Industries Canada, through a $30 million commitment under the Government of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, is helping to drive the adoption of AI by co-investing in projects that align with their sector roadmap. Protein Industries Canada CEO, Bill Greuel, describes a current investment in which machine learning is being used to, “digitize the characteristics of ingredients, the nutritional composition, flavour, feel to the mouth and how they might interact with other ingredients,” Greuel goes on to say, “that this dramatically cuts the time and cost needed for research and innovation and shortens the time to market.”
In the construction sector, Saskatchewan companies are beginning to utilize the technology of AI to better understand, predict, and prevent serious and costly injuries. In one application years of injury, training, and auditing records have been compiled with culture survey data from thousands of companies. The information is aggregated and analyzed to provide injury pattern insights through a customized dashboard. The application is completely mobile and provided in real-time. Construction company owners and decision-makers are provided with a better understanding of their operation and can see how their safety performance compares to that of their peers. Saskatchewan has led in the application of this technology, and it is quickly being adopted in other parts of the country.
Betterworks Technologies is another emerging Saskatchewan-based company using AI to conduct real-time ergonomic assessments. Vergo, short for “video ergonomics”, allows users to capture video on smartphones of workers performing routine tasks on site, and upload it to the cloud. The data is processed and returned in real-time as a detailed risk assessment report so workers can make the necessary corrections to their movements to prevent injuries. Founder and president, Christian Browne, sees this technology having a positive impact on safety evaluations as no special training is required by the user, the software ensures consistency in evaluations, and many workers can be assessed at one time.
Efficiencies and savings are the drivers of Greenwave Innovations’ applications as well. Greenwave provides data-driven energy management and conservation solutions using a combination of monitoring devices and AI to live audit and analyze electricity, natural gas and water consumption. Mike Tate, vice-president of business development and GreenWave’s co-founder, explains, “we’ve seen a major shift. Moment-in-time audits are a thing of the past. Everybody is looking for real-time, data-driven, minute-by-minute solutions”. The use of AI has revolutionized Greenwave’s business and created new opportunities in energy management.
Ultimately, the adoption of machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies can be used to supplement an individual’s intelligence to make quick, more informed decisions and Saskatchewan-based companies are quietly leading the way in many sectors.