Slovak scientist Mária Bieliková is trying to change the “brain drain” trend where young talent is leaving Slovakia to pursue opportunities abroad, by giving them a reason to stay while at the same time offering an opportunity to return from abroad. The Founding of the Kempelen Institute - a project completely unprecedented in Slovakia, is the result of a long-term work and initiative. The largest private sector businesses invest in basic research and development. It connects the expertise from within academia with companies to deliver a wide range of applicable and practical IT solutions. It looks at how companies and universities can cooperate with the institute, how to create an inspiring environment for the talent in Slovakia, what kind of people will fit into the KInIT team and whether scientists actually go for a beer?
With your former colleagues from FIIT STU, you founded the first independent institute for intelligent technology research, the Kempelen Institute for Intelligent Technologies (KInIT), to bring together the "best minds" from academia and business. How did this idea come about?
We have been working for many years to nurture talent and leaders in the field of information technology. We have long understood that people - commitment, entrepreneurship, and at the same time expert-level proficiency in a particular field - are important for the country. More than 300 thousand people, many of them IT specialists, have given up social insurance in Slovakia in the last 10-15 years. Something needs to be done about this. The situation last year (the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, author's note) created an opportunity to build a new element in the research and education ecosystem of Slovakia. While such institutes have been operating abroad for decades, this is the first time we have seen a larger-scale investment from the private sector in basic research and talent development. Last summer, for the xth time, I told people my vision of how the talent development environment should look. The idea to establish the Kempelen Institute arose quite naturally from this need. Wherever we implement our ideas, collaboration across the ecosystem is important because we want to turn the „brain drain“ into „brain circulation“.
Since the beginning, KInIT has been cooperating with renowned companies such as Tatra banka, ESET, HUBHUB, Innovatrics, Softec and Seesame. What are your ambitions and immediate plans with the institute?
The main purpose of the Kempelen Institute is to concentrate and circulate young talent, which is crucial for innovation, increasing competitiveness and indeed for any activity. In this way, society would be better able to take care of those who need it the most. In Slovakia, our approach is unique precisely because it connects the excellent capabilities of researchers with experience in the academic sector and innovative companies, their needs and experience. In the initial few months, we also worked with Slovak universities and the Slovak Academy of Sciences, as well as foreign research institutes, to develop a strategic plan, identify key initiatives and apply for our first research grants.
I am proud that we have managed to launch the PhD studies in cooperation with the Faculty of Information Technology at Brno University of Technology, with four innovative companies and six world-class scientists from quality foreign universities and technology companies.
KInIT's vision is to bring world-class research and development in the field of intelligent technologies and informatics and connect it with the private sector to make Slovakia and Europe more successful and competitive. Which areas are we lagging behind the most compared to other countries?
Slovakia has a long history of poorly funding research and little support for business investment. It results in limited involvement with European and global research. On the other hand, we still have a large number of excellent people both in research and in education at all levels. Slovaks are also succeeding in attaining important positions abroad. Talent cannot just be killed off. But if we do not water the flower for too long, it will just hardly blossom. Many intelligent people will become „average“ or leave Slovakia. Unfortunately, they usually have no idea how many interesting opportunities are open and available to them in Slovakia, while also connected with foreign countries.
I have been associated with various companies for a long time, thanks to collaborations and interesting projects, while I've been working at the university. After founding slovak.AI and later the Kempelen Institute, I saw how many really interesting opportunities Slovakia has to offer.
But sometimes I feel like we're lacking in confidence overall and can't find a path to excellence.
Technology also plays a role. As with talent, there are huge differences in the development and use of new technologies. We have companies with the potential to get to the top, but others are simply several years behind developments in the outside world and have not even implemented digitalisation. We need to focus on those companies where there is the human will to innovate, to support them as much as possible so that they are not afraid to invest in their future. The Kempelen Institute can also contribute by aiding the development of researchers and innovators in companies.
source: LinkedIn - Mária Bieliková
I have read that contribution to ensuring talent can blossom in the field of computer science here in Slovakia and that young people do not have to go abroad. Do you see any progress in this area?
Recently, a number of Slovaks who studied abroad have returned. This is a positive sign. I believe that they have found interesting jobs and that a few of them will also get into scientific research.
What action would help to slow down this trend?
This is a very complex problem. I think it is important to systematically support anything that can create new knowledge and innovation, but also improve learning at all levels. It is necessary to connect and at the same time suppress the „clan culture“, which is widespread in our country and is quite literally destructive. One way of doing this in the field of research and innovation is to open up, to engage with foreign experts in a positive way and to take inspiration from mechanisms that work abroad. This is really essential.
We should not "jeopardise" the future for our children.
The return of Slovaks or the recruiting of top experts and researchers from abroad, is expected to be supported by the state in the Recovery Plan. Hopefully this can be done wisely and in a way that does not exclude any element of the ecosystem from this important activity. After all, an archaic system cannot be improved further by simply throwing more money at it. It is the people who are important. Successful companies show the huge role played by motivated people who are ready to embrace challenges and constant change. I believe that the doctoral studies at the Kempelen Institute with the involvement of top scientists from abroad and innovative Slovak companies will contribute to this.
Besides cooperation with universities, you also plan to cooperate with companies at the Institute. You have presented a vision that companies could involve researchers in the education of their own employees. Could you elaborate on this idea?
Research is the foundation of innovation. It might seem that you just need to take something already founded. In part, it is enough for a result. But one should always strive to be better and the best. If something is also being created around you, not just used, it contributes to the improvement of everyone around you and, most importantly, brings more opportunities. A recent survey showed that businesses that own their intellectual property have, on average, higher revenue per employee. For small and medium-sized enterprises, the increase ranges from 20% to almost 70%. Similarly, companies with employees who not only know how to deploy a technology, but also understand it, or who can experiment and investigate its properties, perform better.
At the Kempelen Institute, we try to create collaborations with companies where not only do we, the researchers, conduct the research and deliver the results, but we work directly with the partner's employees. That way, they learn and we learn.
You don't have to be an expert in everything, but the more insight you have, especially in other fields, the more likely you will come up with new and interesting things and make good decisions.
Many scientists are very interested in working in an extraordinary team like KInIT. How are you selecting your colleagues?
Our first selection of new colleagues is coming soon. Currently, candidates can apply and we will take a selection of - PhD students - from FIT Brno undertaking the part-time study (external form) and they will carry out research as employees of the Kempelen Institute. The culture and attitude of each individual comes first in our company. In order to fulfil our goal, we must cultivate an environment of trust in which people can enjoy working. Research is amazing in what a person discovers every day. There is a tremendous amount of freedom and with it also responsibility.
For me, the two key qualities of every colleague at KInIT are openness and respect.
Of course, the individuals skills and abilities for the position are also important. But many things can be learned if a person is willing and motivated enough and has an environment that not only inspires but also aids them.
Are you used to spending time with your colleagues after work? Do scientists ever go out for a beer? 😊
When they can, they definitely do. (We conducted this interview during lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic, author's note.) We've been home for a few months now and we are all looking forward to going out for a beer. I didn't start drinking beer until my wonderful PhD students introduced me to it about 15 years ago. We even had seminars on how to make beer and my colleagues created a personalized beer tutorial. :-) Some of it is kept on our research group's website from when we were still at university: https://pewe.sk/ontoparty-archive/.
At the moment it is very popular to talk about company culture. Companies refer to it in their PR. I´m curious to know - how you "do things" at KInIT, how does your institute corporate?
Culture is key for us. Not for communication, but internally. Excellent research requires people who, thanks to their curiosity can, not only come up with ground-breaking results, but also work patiently, for long hours, weeks, months and sometimes years, testing and experimenting. In doing so, the person has to keep up with the world, learn a lot, often fail many times and only sometimes succeed. Our vision is to contribute to the development of world-class responsible research in smart technologies within Central Europe by creating a place where quality researchers from all over the world will be concentrated. "Creating a place" is key in the vision. It is not just a physical space.
Values such as quality are close to our hearts - we are demanding of ourselves and our partners.
Transparency is important – knowledge which we are creating is verified and presented transparently, honesty - we promote fairness in our approach to both people and data, diversity - we collaborate with researchers from different disciplines, believing that only diverse perspectives can bring curiosity and ultimately quality, - we look for challenges and enjoy every new insight. Our goal is to increase the availability of talent in Slovakia, to motivate young capable people to stay in Slovakia and build their careers here with a strong connection to the international environment. We want to build an environment for excellent, responsible and visible research, exposure and education of the best researchers in areas where potential exists for transfer into practice or for the development of society.
At the institute, you work on topics such as information security, energy, natural language processing, e-commerce personalisation and hoaxes. In recent months, various misinformation related to COVID-19 has been spreading on the Internet, having a significant impact on people's behaviour. On the one hand, it is difficult to influence the disseminators of this misinformation and, on the other hand, to inspire its recipients to be more critical and to verify their sources. Could you give an indication of how you plan to tackle this issue?
We are currently looking at the impact of platforms that recommend content which spreads misinformation, such as YouTube. How quickly does one get into a filter bubble when the recommendation algorithm confines you to a very small number of topics? How much effort does it take to get out of such an information bubble? Filter bubbles are not necessarily bad. If I'm interested in cameras and get to see other interesting videos about cameras, it can be useful. But if I come across a video about the earth being flat, and before long the platform encloses me in a bubble of similar nonsense, that can be dangerous.
Nobody has any idea how the big platforms work, so we decided to investigate them to contribute towards a better understanding of these phenomena in order to help people evaluate the information they receive.
Your practice focuses on modelling human-computer interaction. Do you remember your first work with a computer?
My first interactions weren't so much with a computer, but with a punch-tag device during my first year of university. We were working at a terminal and we had limited time. I more or less tweaked the program on paper before it went into the computer. In my final year of study, I had an opportunity to write my thesis on a personal computer. It was a big thing in those days. For example, one classmate programmed a menu, which has long been commonplace and no one programs them, then we watched in amazement as the menu scrolled nicely. :-)
Let's go back to modelling human-computer interaction and modelling users. What can we imagine from this term in practice?
A person leaves many traces when interacting with a computer - they move from one page to another, they click the mouse on certain elements on the page, they move the cursor, they skip some items, they click on some items, or they look at a specific place on the screen. In addition to such implicit feedback, sometimes the user provides explicit feedback, for example, by expressing interest via a like or by writing a comment or filling in a questionnaire. We explore the characteristics of the interaction, estimating the user's interests or the different states they might be in, for example when they are confused and need help. User modelling is mainly used to recommend and customize a page for a specific user. It is also important for improving the application itself so that users get the most benefit or even experience from it.
Nowadays, human-computer contact is really intense, especially among the younger generation. Are you seeing how this smart machine is shaping users?
A single page shown to two different people will provide different information to each of them, regardless of the fact that they are behaving the same way at any given moment. This phenomenon is very useful because it helps to process the huge amount of information we are exposed to today. But it is also risky when it is not clear and transparent how these machines work or when people are not interested in how "their" data is being used. Data, specifically data about the users of different applications, is a valuable business commodity today. It is all the more important to understand how humans interact with applications, to explore how to interpret these patterns so that the user can understand what the machine really knows about him or her.
You are also involved in artificial intelligence. Could you generalize to what extent Slovak companies use it in their solutions?
More than a year ago, we undertook a survey on the use of artificial intelligence by companies in Slovakia.
From 247 respondents, 98 said they work with AI in some form.
Whether they are directly developing systems that have AI elements or using them or consulting on their use. The biggest customer of AI solutions at the time was the financial sector. In just over a year, the situation has certainly shifted slightly and more companies are at least considering using AI solutions. Transportation and logistics, energy and healthcare are also coming to the fore.
There are many interesting projects being carried out in the field of artificial intelligence in Slovakia. However, we are lacking. There are still very few AI solutions being invented and developed in our country, which is very important for increasing competitiveness. We are a small country, so we must try to create solutions that will also have wider applications. Right now, I see a great opportunity for new solutions in the online Internet space.
Opinions on artificial intelligence are differ. Do you think we should realistically be worried about it?
Artificial intelligence is nothing to worry about. If there's anything we should be worried about, it's us humans.
Because it is up to us to decide what happens next, in what way and for what we will use technologies that are neutral. First and foremost, as many people as possible should understand technology. Not everyone has to be an expert, but just as we learn about the human body and try to understand the actions of the people around us, we should try to understand the actions of computers, of machines. What are their limits, what can we expect in an interaction? It is good to know that even a machine can have "biases" that can significantly affect outcomes and thus many times our actions. But the fact is that these biases are introduced into machines by humans - whether intentionally or unintentionally. We should understand all the processes as best we can so that we can take responsibility for what we do with the help of machines.
Behind the rather common Slovak name stands a distinctive personality - a scientist, computer scientist and former dean of the Faculty of Informatics and Information Technologies of the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava (FIIT STU). She is only the third woman to succeed at STU. Under her leadership, students and colleagues have achieved unprecedented success at international level. Personality of Science and Technology 2010, IT Personality of the Year 2016 and one of the youngest female professors in Slovakia, prof. Ing. Mária Bieliková, PhD. (54), studied at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering of the Slovak University of Technology. During her doctoral studies she completed an internship at The University of Sheffield in Great Britain. For 13 years she was a member of the Executive Committee of the Slovak Informatics Society and a member of the Accreditation Commission of the Slovak Republic. She was particularly interested in software applications and services in the Internet and web environment. She is the author of many studies and professional publications from the world of IT. She was at the birth and led the User Experience and Interaction Research Centre, the successful PeWe (Personalized Web) research group and established the Industrial Research Centre at the Faculty. She has served as a member of the Board of Directors of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre and of the Artificial Intelligence Expert Group set up by the European Commission. She is involved in several professional organizations, scientific committees and editorial boards for several prestigious scientific journals. In 2019, she was one of the founders of the Slovak Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research (slovak.AI) and in 2020, together with her team, she founded the Kempelen Institute for Intelligent Technologies (KInIT), an independent institute dedicated to the research of intelligent technologies, especially artificial intelligence. Today, she serves as its CEO and Research Fellow.