IBM opens Centre for Advanced Studies in Edmonton

IBM this week said it will dedicate its third Canadian Center for Advanced Studies to projects involving nanotechnology, machine learning and biomolecular design.

Based in Edmonton, the IBM Alberta Center for Advanced Studies (CAS), one of the 15 IBM such centres around the world, involves a $1.2 million investment from Big Blue, the Government of Alberta and the University of Alberta. The first Canadian CAS was established in Toronto in 1990. IBM had said it would open the Edmonton centre earlier this year.

Rolf Sherlock, the facility’s program director, said IBM gains from the CAS include connections between Edmonton-based academics and company researchers.

 “There was a time 10 or 15 years ago when IBM thought they could do everything themselves,” he said. “IBM has learned that you have to work with other people—some of those people are industry partners, some are competitors.”

Universities are ideal places to look for emergent technology and leadership, he added. “There’s lots of people with great ideas, but they don‘t necessarily have strong connections with the industry.”

Researchers making use of the facility include Kit Barton, a second-year University of Alberta doctoral candidate, who collaborated with researchers at IBM’s Toronto Software Lab and the TJ Watson Research Centre in New York state and Massachusetts. Barton’s work involved building and compiling code for massive parallel computers, such as the 128,000-processor Blue Gene, based at the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“What Kit did is an amazing breakthrough,” Sherlock said, adding that his work has been of considerable benefit to IBM. “From IBM’s viewpoint, it’s moved them a long way ahead of the competition in supercomputing.”

Another advantage for IBM in establishing the centres is to assist the corporation in hiring the best and brightest to fill staff positions, he said.

“It gives us and the students that participate in the program the chance to get to know one another,” Sherlock said. “It’s obviously a bit of a risk when you hire new students as to whether they really understand what it’s like to work in the real world.

From IBM’s perspective, there’s also a risk concerning whether a new hire is going to be productive and be happy, he added.

Within a year, the Edmonton centre plans to have six or seven projects under way, each typically involving a graduate student.

They will work in collaboration with IBM development or research staff, said Sherlock:  “It’s not as if they’re doing something on their own.”

Sometimes a team made of researchers from several IBM CAS’s works on a single project, Sherlock said.

“It’s not just computer science people,” Sherlock said. “It’s people who need to use computer science, as well. It might be a biologist or a chemist or a physicist.”

IBM officials say the next Canadian IBM CAS might be at the University of Victoria. On Nov. 29, IBM plans to open its Victoria Software Lab, following its acquisition last July of Victoria software developer PureEdge Solutions Inc.

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