The growing importance of AI can also be seen in ETH student numbers. While only a few hundred students attended a course in machine learning and AI methods in 2012–13, this figure has now risen to well over 3,000. “Introduction to Machine Learning” is attended by more students than any other lecture. Most students come from the core subjects of computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and mathematics. Equally striking is the fact that every academic department at ETH now has students taking courses in AI. To meet this demand, ETH launched both a Master’s degree programme and a continuing education programme in data science in 2017.
“ETH Zurich’s strengths in AI lie in its outstanding basic research in mathematics, computer science, information technology and data science, as well as the quality of its infrastructure,” says Detlef Günther, Vice President for Research. “But we also have huge potential to develop innovative AI methods by combining our excellence in AI fundamentals with the top-class research we conduct in the variety of disciplines we offer.”
A connected future
Governments, corporations and universities are implementing AI strategies to address AI’s growing economic and social impact. The US and China are investing particularly heavily in AI. That raises the question of how Switzerland, and indeed Europe, can position themselves globally, and how ETH Zurich can continue to expand its status in the AI field.
One strategy that was proposed recently in an interview with Thomas Hofmann – an AI researcher at ETH and co-director of the Max Planck ETH Center for Learning Systems – is to link up Europe’s AI centres of excellence, which include Zurich, Lausanne and Lugano, in order to create a Europe-wide AI network that includes ETH researchers.
With this strategy in mind, ETH Zurich took the decision in May 2020 to extend its partnership with the Max Planck Society by another five years. Launched in 2015, this partnership in the field of learning systems connects ETH Zurich with the Max Planck Institutes in Tübingen and Stuttgart, two other European centres of excellence in AI. A new initiative that is linking up AI researchers across Europe is the European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems (ELLIS). Launched in December 2019, ELLIS comprises 30 European AI centres of excellence. ETH Zurich has been involved in the initiative right from the start through its ETH ELLIS Unit.
Reliable, ethical AI
A third new aspect concerns ETH itself, more specifically how it connects its AI researchers to the wider world and gives broader visibility to “[email protected]”. On 20 October 2020, the university will hold an opening ceremony to launch its new ETH AI Center. “The AI Center will set the stage for interdisciplinary dialogue with industry, government and society on how to continue developing artificial intelligence in a way that fosters innovation and inspires trust,” says Günther.
In terms of its organisational structure, the centre builds on the strengths of ETH and combines the fundamentals of AI theory and methodologies with expertise from the various disciplines. The core group comprises some 20 professors who conduct research in key AI fields such as machine learning, big data and statistics. Around this is a wider circle of researchers who develop AI methods for their particular subject area or who study the effects of AI. The centre is also open to guests from other AI research institutes and from the industry.
“The AI Center is not a virtual network,” says Andreas Krause, the designated head of the centre. “It is a real meeting point where AI scientists from research and industry can exchange ideas and embark on joint research projects.” Due to the extremely rapid pace of development in the field of AI, the plan is to build up the AI Center gradually, with a focus on interdisciplinary projects and promoting talent.
The centre’s strategy is rooted in characteristic human traits that no intelligent machine can compete with, namely motivation, curiosity, creativity and flexibility in evolving situations. “Our aim is to get the centre up and running by focusing firmly on talent, starting with a fellowship programme,” says Krause. “Doctoral students and postdocs will play a key role in interdisciplinary research partnerships. They will offer fresh perspectives on how to link up research topics and develop new AI tools.” The new centre had plenty of positive experiences to draw on, including the doctoral programme run by the Max Planck ETH Center as well as the Master’s degree programme in data science, where computer science students develop AI solutions for other fields of research. “Both those programmes are producing exciting results and have provided valuable inspiration,” says Krause.
In terms of content, the ETH AI Center will deal with fundamental issues relating to AI. For example, there are a number of AI methods that are used in practice but are still short on theory. Plugging these gaps would mean not only seeing whether an AI method works, but actually getting to the root of why. “We want to fundamentally rethink how we develop AI models so that they work safely and reliably and produce results that are explainable, interpretable and fair,” says Krause. “I see reliability and transparency as essential when it comes to the societal impact and ethics of AI.” Safe, reliable and fair AI solutions can make a real difference, particularly in research areas that play to ETH Zurich’s strengths, such as mobility, health, manufacturing, energy, climate and the environment. With some AI experts arguing that responsible and reliable AI could represent a major opportunity for Europe, the ETH AI Center is committed to making trustworthy AI a top priority.
Source: ETH Zurich