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“We will seamlessly cooperate with machines”

Between humans and machines there will be peaceful cohabitation, argues computer scientist Nuria Oliver. There are things machines are better at than humans, and vice versa.

Data is considered to be the oil of the 21st century, the basic commodity of our time. Oil, however, is nothing without being refined. What will the refinement of data look like in the next couple of years?
Nuria Oliver: Indeed, data in itself can be seen as “digital garbage” if we are not able to make sense of it, to draw useful insights or learn and / or make better decisions thanks to it. A large percentage of the data available today is non-structured data. Hence, to be able to extract value from it we need to apply machine learning techniques. Some directions where I think that big data data analysis will progress in the next years include: (1) Real-time analysis and predictive models. A lot of the projects analyse data post-hoc, i.e. data from the past. However, many use cases would benefit from being able to analyse the data in real-time and make predictions to help inform decision-making; (2) Multi-modal analysis. As the number of data sources increases, it will be increasingly important to be able to effectively combine data from different sources in the analysis; (3) Privacy by design approaches when dealing with personal data; and (4) FATE algorithms. That is, fair, accountable, transparent and ethical algorithms. As the presence of algorithms in our lives will be pervasive, we need to ensure that they satisfy these four conditions.

Part of your work includes the modelling of human behaviour. Can artificial intelligence help us to understand better who we (really) are, refine us better?
Indeed. Today, thanks to the ubiquity of technology in our homes, our cities, our workplaces and ourselves (i.e. mobile phones, wearables etc) we have an unprecedented availability of human behavioural data: where we go, how we spend our time, how we feel, how much we walk, sleep or eat, what we shop for, read, listen to or watch – are examples of what can be collected or automatically inferred from such data by means of machine learning algorithms. As the availability of data increases and machine learning techniques become more sophisticated, we will have the ability to infer more complex and nuanced aspects of who we are. This knowledge could be extremely valuable to help us improve our lifestyle, our wellbeing, better manage our time and ultimately realise our potential.

Nuria Oliver is a computer scientist. She holds a PhD from the Media Lab at MIT. She is the first female Spanish computer scientist to be named an ACM Distinguished Scientist. She is a Fellow of the European Association of Artificial Intelligence and a IEEE Fellow. She is well known for her work in computational models of human behavior, human / computer interaction, intelligent user interfaces, mobile computing and big data for social good. Nuria invests significant effort in outreach efforts to make technology more accessible to the general public. (Picture: Arduino Vanucchi)

It is a long way from data collection and data utilisation to the creation of a “conscious mind” sort of intelligence. What inspires humankind to think in such a superlative utopian kind of way about the abilities of technology?
Technology has and will without a doubt transform who we are, how well and how long we live, the jobs that we do, the way we communicate with and relate to others, etc – technology in itself is a tool that can be used for a variety of purposes. It is the aspiration of many of us who have devoted our lives to technological research to ensure that the technolo- gies that we invent and develop will have a positive impact in the quality of life for all of us and also for our planet. I am convinced that our survival as a species depends on our ability to develop the right technologies to address critical challenges such as global warming, the ageing of the population and chronic disease and the availability of limited resources, etc.

As a scientist: how plausible do you think these visions are?
I think they are very plausible. We are already able to tackle complex problems, cure diseases, travel to outer space, democratise education, improve productivity, use renewable energies, to name a few, thanks to technology.

One of the “milder”, if you will, predictions is that there will be more human-machine interaction in the future, as in regard for example to implemented chips that may help us accelerate our brain capacity. It sounds also kind of like science fiction yet it seems to be highlighting what humans are very good at and what machines do at their best.
Yes, I am convinced that we will seamlessly cooperate with machines, both physical machines (e.g. robots, devices, cars) and algorithms. We already do it today. It will be of paramount importance that we develop FATE technology, that is, technology that will be fair, accountable, transparent and ethical. These four dimensions are right now actively being addressed in the research community as four important challenges that we need to address in order to maximise the positive impact of technology in our lives. We also need to ensure that we minimise the risk of having a gap between those who have access to technology and knowledge and those who do not. That’s why we need to invest in education at all levels, from primary school to citizens.

You have been trying to use big data, the basic achievements of artificial intelligence, for social good. How can big data help improve our societies?
The ability to make sense of big data through machine learning techniques can bring significant positive impact in different areas of our societies. I have extensive experience of using aggregated and pseudo-anonymised mobile network data. We have shown that this data is valuable because it enables us to infer large-scale patterns of human mobility, human networks and compute accurate estimates of population counts, in a fully privacy-preserving manner. These variables (mobility, networks and population counts) are important in urban planning, when facing public health challenges (such as a risk of a pandemic) and natural disasters and emergencies. We have also found the population dynamics are helpful to understand the socio-economic development of a region, to model energy consumption or to automatically detect crime hotspots in a city.

There is a fear that artificial intelligence, will turn our societies upside down, especially the workforce. What do you make of this objection?
Every major technology has disrupted the workforce. Today many jobs that existed at the time of my grandmother have disappeared, such as telephone switchboard operator, factory lector, milkman, street lamplighter, ice cutter and transporter, lift operator, etc. At the same time, there are new jobs today that didn’t exist 20 years ago, such as mobile app programmer, social media manager, cloud computing expert, Uber driver, sustainability manager, drone pilot, driverless car engineer, etc. From my perspective, the most important element is that we prepare both existing and future workers for the changes that technological progress will bring so they can contribute and be relevant in tomorrow’s society.

In regard to practical changes in the next few years: are we going to see the selfdriving car? What other innovation will stun us?
There are several areas where technology could have a profound impact. One of them is healthcare. We are moving towards a model of predictive, personalised and preventative medicine, which would represent a very significant shift in the way we deal with disease. Another area is education, where, thanks to technology, we will be able to have personalised, multi-modal education that would be optimised to each student. We should also be able to communicate using technology in a richer way and eventually using our thoughts. We will also be able to develop fully sustainable cities with a zero or even negative environmental footprint, so that there would be hope for our planet. Manned missions to space should have also progressed and the colonisation of Mars or some other planet with humans would be attainable.

Do you see governments and legislators as sufficiently prepared for these changes?
No. I worry about the gap that exists between an elite of us who know and understand how today’s technology works, and a large majority of people (not just legislators or decision-makers, but also children, young and older people) who do not have the technical skills to be able to understand today’s highly technological world. I worry about our educational systems, which are not up-to-date with what will be needed to contribute in tomorrow’s society; I worry about a technology and data literacy gap that we urgently need to address. That’s one of the reasons why I work with Data-Pop Alliance, as we have data literacy programs for governments, decision makers and citizens; and that’s also one of the reasons why I am proud to work for Vodafone, as they have several initiatives to promote digital literacy and education.

What made you enter this field in the first place?
I have always been fascinated by the figure of a researcher and an inventor. Since I was a child, my idols were Leonardo da Vinci, Marie Curie, Einstein, Ramon y Cajal. I am a very curious person with lots of interests in many areas, not just science. I love to study and learn. I also love puzzles and unsolved problems. Therefore, being a researcher is a very good fit for me. Regarding technology, I always loved the sciences but didn’t know much about computer science or electrical engineering while I was growing up. When I was in my last year of high school, I had the opportunity to talk to one of my brother’s friends who was studying electrical engineering. After he described to me what the career was about, I decided that I wanted to devote my life to technological research and innovation. I feel very lucky that I have been able to do so. It’s extremely motivating to feel that I am contributing with my work to create a better future for all.

Interview: Alexander Görlach

Hugh Herr lost both legs in a climbing accident. Nowadays he is head of the Biomechatronics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Photo: Heinz Troll/ EPO)