An interview with Nuria Oliver

Nuria Oliver, Doctora en IA y Data Scientist del Año - Iberdrola

Social transformation R&D Internet Interviews


October 2018.    Reading time: 6 minutes

According to Nuria Oliver, Data Scientist of the Year for the Big Data Value Association (BDVA) with a PhD from MIT for her work on Artificial Intelligence (AI), one of the main challenges facing society is to find ways to use technology to improve people's lives and to involve women in building the society of the future by encouraging STEM careers.

An interview with Nuria Oliver, PhD in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Data Scientist 2019 for BDVA.
An interview with Nuria Oliver, PhD in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Data Scientist 2019 for BDVA.

Nuria Oliver is a telecommunications engineer with a PhD in Artificial Intelligence (IA) from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She was named Data Scientist of the Year 2019 by the Big Data Value Association (BDVA), an international non-profit organisation supported by the industry with 200 members Europe wide, in recognition of her work concerning social big data and computational models of human behaviour. Her résumé makes her an authority on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which women must be made participants by guiding them to study STEM subjects.

Towards an Artificial Intelligence by and for society is the title of one of your most popular conferences. What does AI have to contribute in this area?

AI is at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in which we are immersed. It has an enormous transformational power, since it is cross-cutting, invisible, scalable, updatable and has the capacity to explain the past, interpret the present, and predict the future. However, it has some less positive characteristics, for example: it generates situations of asymmetry in terms of access to the data needed to train the AI algorithms and the availability of means to be able to harness AI. It is hackable and can be used to create fake content — text, video, images or audio — which are absolutely indistinguishable from real content.

Marie Curie said "Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less". However, for neophytes, AI is a bit scary, for example in everything related to the automation of employment. How should we respond to this?

I use this quote a lot, which I think is very relevant today. Despite the extreme importance of AI in our lives — from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed we interact with AI systems — there is a huge, worrying lack of understanding of it in society. It is important to inspire citizens to take an interest in AI and to make informed decisions about it. I very much like Finland's AI education project for citizens through an online program called Elements of AI.

Artifical Intelligence can explain the past, interpret the present, and make future predictions

AI is infinitely more powerful than humans in terms of computing power, speed or storage. Are there any areas where humans beat AI?

These days we have specific AI systems, which are capable of performing one specific, but only one, task automatically and autonomously. For example, although an algorithm designed to play chess plays better than the best human, it cannot do anything else. In fact, it doesn't know what chess is and would have difficulty playing if we changed the rules of the game. Current systems have only limited intelligence, since they are incapable, among other things, of generalising and using their skills in other areas automatically, as humans do.

Where is the man-machine interaction now? What do you think will happen in the future?

The last five years has seen some pivotal advances. Now, for the first time, we can talk — to our mobile phones, cars and homes — and they listen to us, understand us and even respond to us. Massive progress is also being made with what are known as brain-machine interfaces that will allow us, for example, to control prostheses or wheelchairs with our minds. The aspiration of human-machine interaction is to be able to develop systems that can interact in a similar way to the way humans interact.

You are a specialist in big data for the good of society. What applications does it have in this field? Could it help in the fight against climate change?

There are countless applications in many fields: public health, climate change, natural disasters, humanitarian crises, climate migration, economic development, smart cities, transport, education, agriculture, etc. We cannot forget that practically all areas of society are being digitised. Once we have the data, we need techniques to interpret it and use it to make better decisions.

Looking at your career, we might say that you're one step ahead. For example, you've been a data scientist for a long time, a job with an excellent future. What does it consist of and what training is necessary?

It's true that, Data Science is one of the most in-demand disciplines today. It takes a knowledge of programming, statistics, visualisation, mathematics, machine learning, etc., to be able to develop systems capable of analysing enormous amounts of data (big data), interpret them and do something useful with them. There are already universities that offer Data Science degrees.

There will be hundreds of thousands of new technological vacancies in the European Union with nobody to fill them

In this sense, what are your views on the future of employment?

One of the consequences of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be the metamorphosis of the labour market. Many jobs will be transformed and automated. At the same time, new jobs will appear with a strong technological component. In the European Union (EU) there will be hundreds of thousands of new technological vacancies that, today, we do not know how we are going to fill because there is a lack of professionals and too few technical students (STEM). So, I'd like to encourage young people to consider a career in technology.

What would you say to inspire them to study STEM subjects, particularly girls?

The most important thing is to study what interests you, but to make an informed decision you need to consider all the options. Technological careers offer the best future and job opportunities, they are the most versatile and offer excellent flexibility to be able to achieve a work-life balance, for example, working from home. Unfortunately, the percentage of girls studying for these types of qualifications is very low and we cannot afford to be a society whose future is not vested in diversity. In this case, we cannot allow women to be excluded from the Fourth Industrial Revolution and from defining the society of today and tomorrow.

Your opening speech to the Academy of Engineering was entitled Artificial Intelligence: Fiction, Reality and Dreams... Of all your future forecasts, which do you consider a dream?

The most important prediction is that society will manage to take advantage of all technological development for progress, that is, to improve everyone's quality of life in this world, benefiting not just a few, but all living beings and our planet. Our future and our survival depend on it.