AI explosion

Barcelona has joined the European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems (ELLIS), a network for excellence in AI research

“It’s very important that the people developing these technologies are aware of the benefits and risks they entail”

In 2019, peculiar monitoring tests for schoolchildren began in China. Using an advanced computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) system, the children’s biometric data, such as eye movements or facial expressions, were recorded and analysed to see if they were paying attention and concentrating in class. AI had entered the classroom, supposedly to contribute to improving the pupils’ attention and promoting better academic performance.

This very controversial experiment would have no place in our education system, but AI is finding its way into classrooms in other ways. Teachers from a private school in Terrassa have taken part in a training programme in which AI and virtual reality are used to improve the communication skills of teachers. According to sources at the Gresol International American School, the AI helps to “improve the wavelength of the voice, to control the characteristics of the speech and to practise breathing and nerve control”.

This is just one example of how AI is gaining a greater presence in different aspects of our lives. One area where it has great potential for application is in health care. The Parc Taulí hospital in Sabadell, for example, has created an emergency unit made up of a team of nurses supported by software, called Mediktor, which is based on artificial intelligence. The software guides them and helps them treat patients with low-complexity and high-incidence pathologies, such as cervical pain, sprained ankles, urinary infections or vertigo. The hospital claims this “allows waiting times to be significantly reduced without sacrificing the quality and safety of the care”.

The impact of generative AI technology, popularised by ChatGPT, can go still much further. An example is the integration of the technology into internet browsers, as is the case with the Opera browser. Another example was seen in Barcelona on June 14, when the city hosted the first film festival in Europe featuring films generated by AI. The event, called +Rain Fest, was organised by the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF).

In fact, the UPF is one of the 10 Catalan centres that are carrying out advanced research in the field of artificial intelligence and contributing talent to the new European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems (ELLIS). The Ellis network is a European initiative to bring together and coordinate the best researchers in the field and ensure lasting international leadership of AI made in Europe. The idea, which came from the scientists themselves, is to have a multi-centre research laboratory, which already brings together top-level institutions in 14 countries, to push the scientific and technological limits of a safe AI for society.

“AI in Europe takes a more humanistic approach, giving importance to human rights, while in the United States, due to corporate influence, they focus more on performance. And in China data processing has completely different rules of the game. In Barcelona, we have a powerful group aimed at contributing to establishing the foundations of this third way and help ensure that Europe does not miss the AI train,” explains Dimosthenis Karatzas, co-director of the Barcelona Ellis unit together with Carme Torras, who adds: “You need to insist a lot on training. It’s very important that the people developing these technologies are aware of the benefits and the risks they entail.”

The Catalan Ellis group is made up of 21 researchers from five universities (University of Barcelona-UB, Autonomous University of Barcelona-UAB, Polytechnic University of Catalonia-UPC, Open University of Catalonia-UOC and UPF) and five research centres: the Computer Vision Center, the Industrial Robotics and Informatics Institute, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute and the Intelligent Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Research Center. Although new, it is one of the European network’s largest units and has room to continue growing.

“We already have a critical mass in AI research, but split among several institutions and research groups and not necessarily aligned, so this unit will allow us to structure research and promote cooperation,” says Karatzas. The Computer Vision Center’s associate director also hopes that the initiative will help retain talent, which he says often moves outside Europe.

Meanwhile, the Catalan business minister, Roger Torrent, says that Barcelona’s integration into the European AI network “positions Catalonia as a point of reference in Europe in terms of research and technological excellence, and helps to generate and attract new research talent.”

feature Technology

Dimosthenis Karatzas

“It is being rolled out without assurances”

The AI boom is happening now but research has been going on in Barcelona for some time.
The first doctoral thesis in AI was done here 40 years ago, by Ramón López de Mántaras, the founder and director of the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the CSIC. Since then, the ecosystem has grown steadily and evolved into various verticals specialising in robotics in computer vision, in ethics... We haven’t popped up like a mushroom, we’ve been working on this for many years and have covered everything, from basic research to the economic and social impact.
How are you experiencing this AI boom that came with ChatGPT?
The main problem is that ChatGPT is what we call a language model, which is trained with unknown knowledge to synthesise natural language. The idea is that it generates a language that sounds good, but does not have to be correct.
And in some cases it’s given too much credibility?
Exactly. The problem is that the industry is testing it live. Developers say that the system has bugs and that the best way to find them is to take it onto the street and see what goes wrong. It’s an unusual policy. Can you imagine if car manufacturers did the same?
Can the eagerness of the industry be dangerous?
When private interests are mixed with something that is emerging and explodes onto the scene this way, it can end up being a dangerous mix. AI by itself is a discipline that can help in many things and have a very important effect on society, but if we launch it without control and the commercial interests of companies are prioritised, we will have a problem. And we will see that sooner rather than later.
In what sense?
We already have a dual problem. There’s a lack of knowledge about these systems, about what they can and can’t do, and there’s a desire to integrate them into real products, for the benefits of these companies, but without enough time having passed to create a legal context to regulate them.
And this will take time because the authorities work slowly.
Of course, it will take time. That’s why the initiatives of some countries like Italy, which have banned its use, can provide time to manage it. Right now it’s being rolled out quickly, with little oversight and no assurances. It has been launched without having done the necessary testing or properly explaining what it is for.
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