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Alberta, The untold history of innovation from Canada’s badlands – Part 2

Tristram Waye | Words Unfold and NCFA ambassador | March 23, 2022

Alberta flag 1 - Alberta, The untold history of innovation from Canada’s badlands - Part 2

This is part 2 of 4.  Click for Part 1 and Part 3 and Part 4 of this series.

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Swyping to an exit

I called Randy at Apple's spaceship, where he was the manager of Text Input Special Projects. He told me about his journey as an Alberta entrepreneur.

Randy's story began as an engineering student at the University of Alberta.

Randy and a classmate decided to solve a quadriplegic friend's problem for their electrical engineering project. This inspiration started a series of insights and innovations now used by hundreds of millions of people.

What started as Madenta in 1988 turned into several patents and groundbreaking products. These included Screendoors, Telepathic, Tracker Pro and WISP.

Screendoors 2 was the first autocorrect on screen keyboard, a groundbreaking innovation in the late 90s. It gave people with disabilities better access and independence.

Telepathic was Madenta’s predictive typing software implemented on the Screendoors 2 keyboard.

Tracker Pro helped people with disabilities use head motions to move the cursor in place of a mouse. This would help them type on the onscreen keyboard. WISP replaced clicking the mouse button letting users puff on a small straw instead.

Microsoft licensed Screendoor2 for Windows 98 to support people with disabilities. Elements of Madenta’s autocorrect onscreen keyboard have been included in Microsoft ever since.

Randy said the 25 years he spent developing solutions for people with disabilities were some of his finest.

As he further explored how to help improve communication for quadriplegics, he came up with another insight. What if a quadriplegic person didn’t have to stop on every letter to select it?  And what if they could pass the cursor through the desired letters without stopping instead?

This idea morphed into, what if you could text by tracing your finger on a virtual keyboard?

He contacted Cliff Kushner in Seattle, then founder of T-9. T-9 was the popular text entry system that used the numeric keys on a traditional cell phone to type letters.

He asked Cliff if he would like to help him create this new product.

Cliff agreed, and ForWord Input was founded, which later became known as Swype.

Randy told me about heading down to the World Series of Startups, TechCrunch Disrupt in 2008. The competition is an intensive multi-step process where startups pitch and get winnowed down to the best 3.

Swype placed 3rd out of 500 at Techcrunch Disrupt 2008 behind Yammer and Fitbit. Swype arrived just after the iPhone hit the market. The timing could not have been better.

It was acquired by Nuance Communications (Makers of Dragon Dictation) in 2011 for $102.5 million.

 

Marsden's second act 

While he was working on Swype, a dentist ordered products he had developed for quadriplegics. It turned out that the dentist struggled to keep his keyboard clean. He was using the hands-free solutions designed for quadriplegics as a way to reduce patient infections.

The conversation evolved into a keyboard technology for safe microbe-free keyboards in hospital environments. The product was called Cleankeys. Cleankeys proved modestly successful as a product but more significant in eliminating keyboard germ transfer.

Cleankeys alumni Matt Bud and Tom Overgaard went on to found Circal Engineering. And Cleankeys continues its important work with microbe-free keyboards through a licence with GETT.

Randy wasn't done yet. He was contemplating the problem of setting your hands down to rest between typing on a glass-surfaced keyboard. The problem was typing letters when you didn't want it to. His engineers struggled with the contradiction: a touch-sensitive keyboard that doesn’t do anything when you touch it - sometimes.

While tapping on his desk and observing the resulting thumping noise, the solution to the problem came to Randy. He could use touch sensors and vibration sensors together, called sensor-fusion. It solved the problem.

Shortly after Cleankeys development, tablet computers emerged. Randy immediately recognized the value of what they had learned from Cleankeys. Only now, the keyboard is on a dynamic display, and the keys could move around. Instead of making the user move their fingers to the keys, the software could move the keys to their fingers.

Again his timing was pristine. He developed Dryft in 2013 with Rob Chaplinsky. Dryft was a dynamic, personalized keyboard that made typing fast and natural on tablets.

To validate the idea, in 2013, he headed back to the World Series of Startups. At TechCrunch Disrupt, Dryft placed 2nd and was acquired by Apple in 2014 for an undisclosed amount.

Randy became Apple's iOS Keyboard Manager and moved on to become the Text Input Special Projects manager. In late 2020 he became Apple’s Product Lead for the Exposure Notifications project. This is a joint venture between Apple and Google to fight the spread of the virus. A natural fit given his background and expertise.

He moved on to Nike in December 2021 where he is Senior Director, Technology Innovation Office.

Randy has received numerous accolades for his work, particularly for his insights into disabilities.

From the Valley, Randy told me he helps Alberta's entrepreneurs whenever he can. He was grateful for Alberta's contribution to his success. But he mentioned the twenty-five years of struggle to achieve what he had.

The challenges for Alberta's entrepreneurs are real and ongoing. And he wasn't the only entrepreneur I spoke to that had ideas about the solutions.

Shortly after talking to Randy, Gail connected me with Jonathan Schaeffer.

 

World-class AI in Alberta? 

I was at a blockchain event hosted by RBC in Vancouver a couple of years ago. It's an event where you see some of the same people that make the rounds at various tech events. I bumped into a friend of mine who was a tech consultant at a large tax and consulting firm. He had just returned from Edmonton.

He told me how he had just discovered this incredible AI program at U of A in Edmonton. He said it was like number 2 in the world. I'd never heard of it. Neither had he or many others.

And so it was almost serendipitous that I got to speak to Jonathan. He was one of the people that helped develop the program at U of A. He was also the co-founder of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII).

Jonathan started by describing why the program was largely unheard of. He referred to a question a US colleague asked him: “How did you guys build a world-class AI group in the subarctic?" Edmonton is, after all, off the beaten track.

Then he said, “we're Canadian, so we don't like to brag.” I laugh a bit when I think of it. He's right, sort of. We do brag, just not enough about the world-class AI program in Alberta's subarctic region. Or many of our other innovation achievements.

I told him the story about talking to my friend at the blockchain event. He directed me to csrankings.org and explained that he could demonstrate with data that the program was world-class. So I followed his instructions, and the ranking was number 3 in the world. In spot one was Carnegie Mellon, followed by Tsinghua University in China. But most impressive was the small number of professors that produce Alberta's ranking versus spots one and two.

Canada’s AI prowess is in two areas. The area with most of the attention right now is called Deep Learning. This area is led by Geoffrey Hinton at the University of Toronto. Hinton's disciples are Yoshua Bengio, at the University de Montreal, and Yann LeCun, the Chief Scientific Officer of Facebook. Jonathan told me that these three shared the 2018 Turing Award. The Turing Award is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for computing science.

The other area where Canada excels in AI is in Reinforcement Learning. This is where Alberta is king. Reinforcement Learning is quickly becoming the part of AI to watch. Based on its expected significance in AGI, Jonathan told me that Reinforcement Learning will turn out to be a much more important technology in the long run.

 

Gaming was where the AI program began 

The U of A program is well known for its gaming prowess, and that's what brought Jonathan to U of A in the first place.

He arrived at the U of A in 1984 to work with Tony Marsland. Marsland was working on building programs to play strong chess. One of Tony Marsland’s students, Murray Campbell, became one of the three co-authors of Deep Blue.

Jonathan, himself a chess master, went on to work with teams that developed several significant gaming achievements.

One was called Chinook for checkers. This program became the first computer program to win a World Championship in any game in 1994. They went on to develop programs for poker with a world-class result in 2003.

Another group at U of A solved two-player poker in 2015.

But it was the arrival of Richard Sutton at U of A that solidified their international leadership status in Reinforcement Learning.

Sutton developed the foundational technology for Reinforcement Learning in the 1980s. His work allowed computer programs to learn from experience. Programs learn through positive and negative feedback over time. And it is his work that is coming to fruition now.

Reinforcement Learning is expected to be part of the future of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI).   AGI is the holy grail of AI because it is believed to approximate a human being's natural problem-solving capability. The general nature of the AGI means it can be used to solve (almost) any problem instead of just one.

Jonathan told me Alberta’s program and its success over time demonstrated how important the commitment to investment is. Much of this research requires decades to develop and nurture. The Government of Alberta has committed to ongoing funding of the program. This commitment has been instrumental in bringing the program to where it is today.

The program has drawn a quiet cadre of companies looking to hive off the U of A's AI prowess. These companies soak up the high-quality graduates from the program. Google Deep Mind's first non-UK office is in Edmonton, as is Google Brain. Apple is there. Huawei is there, along with Mitsubishi. You may have heard the announcement about RBC's AI trading program called Aiden. That was developed by their Borealis division, headquartered in Edmonton.

Jonathan told me there were numerous other companies, the names of which I probably wouldn't recognize. Many up from the Valley. All of them in Edmonton to take advantage of this thirty year AI jewel.

The program wasn't without its challenges.

Not enough bragging was one of them. Canadian's should have more insight into their outstanding innovation achievements, of which this is one.

Another problem also mentioned by John and Randy, was getting great ideas commercialized out of universities. And while support for entrepreneurs exists, money, particularly private money, is always a challenge.

As I looked further, the depth of Alberta's innovation economy came into view. The rich spirit of entrepreneurship that had driven traditional Alberta industries seemed to come together. It reminded me of one of my favourite drives in Alberta, Highway 22 south of Calgary.

 

The drive that brings it all together

There's something magical about hopping in the car and leaving the city. In some places, it's a never-ending stream of cars from one place to the next—a blur of buildings and manmade structures. In Alberta, cities are features in a vast open landscape of contrasts.

Heading south from Calgary, you head out to 22X. You drive past the stables of Spruce Meadows, started by another great Alberta entrepreneur, the late Ron Southern of ATCO. Then you turn south on 22. This is the beginning of one of my favorite drives anywhere.

As you begin, the mountains are far off to the west—the plains to the east. And the road riding down the belly of the foothills in between. It's like a mini-tour of Alberta.

Heading down 22 at the start, you might see an oil rig or two between Black Diamond and Turner Valley. In Longview, a hint of natural gas is in the air, and oil pumps can be seen. In Longview, there's a famous brunch spot filled with country music memorabilia. There's also a rodeo there in the summer.

I've been to that rodeo once. It was a terrific experience. Great people. I had no idea boiled hamburgers tasted so good. And some great advice from locals to sit upwind in the stands. You don't want to leave the rodeo with a dirt tan and bouquet of manure for the drive home.

Longview is like the gateway. From here, you wind through the foothills south. Herds of cattle roam on vast acreages near the highway as the road winds. In the summer, the winding road and wide-open country is a fun drive. But this isn't the highway you want to be on in the winter at night, with snow and strong westerly winds.

After about an hour and a half, you arrive at the junction with Highway 3. It is here that you discover something remarkable.

It's like the mountains, the foothills, and the plains seem to meet there. To the east, Pincher Creek and the road down to one of Canada's crown jewels, Waterton Park. To the west, it takes you into the mountains and coal country.

Lundbreck, or at least my vision of it, reminds me of all the elements that come together to make innovation possible. It was like discovering Alberta's secret innovation economy as I went down one prairie dog hole after another.

 

Instruments, sound, and smartboards

With some direction from these interviews and the Wayback machine, I discovered some of Alberta's other secrets.

One is iTRES Research Limited. The company was founded in 1979 by Clifford Anger, a University of Calgary Physics professor. This company developed airborne electro-optical instruments for scientific research and remote sensing. They develop proprietary imaging systems. These systems operate in visible light, ultraviolet, near-infrared, shortwave infrared, and thermal spectral ranges.

They have a strong history of product development using their technology. And they are part of the U of C’s New Earth Sciences Technology program.

Then I heard (no pun intended) about QSound and Smartboards. QSound Labs was founded by Dan Lowe and John Lees and financed by the infamous Larry Ryckman in 1986. QSound provided 3D sound enhancement and numerous audio and sound enhancements for the entertainment industry.

By the '90s, QSound tech was used widely across every sound-related element of the entertainment industry. Even Madonna and Sting used it for recording.

Then came Smartboards. Smart Boards were the very first web-conference software for Windows that preceded Microsoft’s NetMeeting. David Martin and Nancy Knowlton founded Smart Technologies in 1987. They had a customer roster including Ford, Proctor and Gamble, NASA, and our own Bell Canada.

Smart technologies was sold to Foxconn for $200 million in 2016. In the meantime, the couple went on to cofound their next venture, Nureva, in 2014

Then there was Yotta Yotta.

 

Yotta Yotta, Java and Flash

Having worked at Willowglen, Gail recommended I look into Wayne Karpoff, one of Alberta's well-known entrepreneurs.

Wayne, a U of A grad, had developed a supercomputer company in 1990.  He had taken a company out of receivership and rebuilt it into Myrias Computer Technologies. By 1999, Myrias was merged with Seattle's Seek (Storage) Systems to form YottaYotta Inc.

Yotta Yotta developed the Net Storage Cube. Their clients included the US Department of Defence. They were acquired by EMC Corp, which was subsequently acquired by DELL.

Wayne has gone on to found Technology Alberta and Chair TEC Edmonton. He is a member of the A100 and founded Capital Road Foundation. And he is also active in numerous tech organizations and boards across the province.

Wayne is currently the CEO of Willowglen Systems. Willowglen is focused on industrial automation systems for the international market.

Then I read about James Gosling and Grant Skinner.

James Gosling, is referred to as the father of Java. He was born and raised outside of Calgary and attended the University of Calgary. He joined Sun Microsystems in 1995 and led the team that created Java.

NAIT graduate, Grant Skinner a renowned flash developer and innovator. He is also a founder of Treefortress.

Up next Part 3 of 4

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Authored by:  Tristram Waye

tristram@wordsunfold.comTristram Waye  - Alberta, The untold history of innovation from Canada’s badlands - Part 2 | LinkedIn

Special thanks for the time and contributions from Gail Powley, John Murphy, Jonathan Schaeffer, Randy Marsden, Susan Anderson, Darcy Tuer, Mike Riou, Hussein Hallak and Wayne Karpoff.

 


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