Professor Mária Bieliková currently leads Kempelen Institute for Intelligent Technologies (www.kinit.sk) – independent research institute inspired by similar institutions abroad that acts as a centre of excellent research and expertise in artificial intelligence with a goal to connect academic sector and business. She participates in several international research and innovation projects including Hopero project (www.hopero.sk). Hopero helps in developing companies for digital era through artificial intelligence via establishing European Digital Innovation Hub (EDIH).
Prof. Bieliková currently holds also position of president of Committee on Ethics and Regulation of Artificial Intelligence established by Ministry of Investment, Regional Development and Informatics of the Slovak Republic. She graduated at Slovak University of Technology (SUT) where she received Ing. and PhD academic degrees. She worked for many than 30 years as research assistant and later also as docent and professor. Former dean of Faculty of Informatics and Information Technologies is internationally recognized professional and author of many publications in informatics and artificial intelligence (AI) fields. She is also a member of the international professional organizations Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and acted also as member of the board of directors of Joint Research Centre established by European Commission. In 2019 she introduced idea of connecting academic community, business companies and state or non-profit organizations with focus on artificial intelligence. Together with IT Association of Slovakia (ITAS) and AmCham representatives they established Slovak centre for artificial intelligence research – Slovak.AI, later transformed to AISlovakIA.
Mrs. Professor, last year you participated in our COINTT 2022 Conference with programme entry „How European Centres of Digital Innovations can help to accelerate digitalization of Slovak industry? “ How did you like the conference and what do you see as its contribution?
I see the COINTT as a perfect opportunity to share know-how and connect all who are interested in innovations and knowledge transfer. I am always glad to see how science and research is connected with innovations, because science is a significant accelerator of innovations. If country invests in science and research, it is getting richer. In fact, there is not any other field with higher return rate than science and research when performed in proper way. Although science itself is not condition of innovations, it can bring not only new perspectives to practice, but also grow talents.
You are working in many fields and hold various positions – as a founder of KInIT, strategy manager in Hopero consortium, member of management committees, editorial committees etc. With which position/environment do you identify yourself most and why?
It is not position that motivates me, but content behind it. I have always had entrepreneurship in my blood and research fascinated me as well. I enjoy trying new things, new approaches to problems solutions, solutions themselves and sometimes also identifying problems that will contribute to all of us after being solved. Although I have been always flying in the clouds when it comes to ideas and projects, in their realisation I stay always low and learn how to be patient.
„Will be better“ is important, because it is related to potential of applying results. It does not concern only new knowledge, but also processes, thinking, everything around us. So, I sometimes call myself a pilot, it means person who tries new things. I feel comfortable in this role although it is not always easy because you have to be able to accept many changes which is challenging for everyone.
What contribution of ECDI Hopero consortium in digitalizing Slovak industry do you see as its member? How do you evaluate its activity so far?
We are still in the beginning. European centres of digital innovations are one year late, which caused significant financial losses. I believe that last obstacles will be removed in next days and we might have first new services already delivered when the new COINTT will take place.
I am glad to see interest of companies, we have already more than one hundred of them registered. Hopero helps companies to digitalize and innovate via artificial intelligence that is recently a big topic not only for companies but also for self-government, public and state institutions. We strive to see the problem of improving competitiveness of companies in a holistic way – it is important not only give technical advice, trainings or prototypes but also to help to obtain funding and build community to multiply the effect of help provided.
New knowledge and its implementation into practice, mainly in the artificial intelligence context, move forward rapidly and this influences all the issues. For example, McKinsey survey from august 2023 shows, that 70-80% of companies, depending on their activities, deploy nowadays generative artificial intelligence. What numbers we reach in Slovakia? We do not know it yet.
Hopero consortium consists of members KInIT, Civitta, Slovak Alliance for Innovation Economy (SAPIE) and Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAS). What criteria where applied while choosing them? Do you also plan to recruit new members in future?
Hopero´s strength lies in members’ selection – we have research and development branch (content), ecosystem branch (community) and support branch (obtaining sources for innovations) there.
Research and development branch is represented by Kempelen Institute for Intelligent Technologies (KInIT) whose main mission is to bring excellent science to companies and connect academic sector with business. KInIT has also connecting and establishing community for artificial intelligence in its DNA, so it is appropriately complementary with another two members of consortium, Civitta and Slovak Alliance for Innovative Economy (SAPIE).
Civitta is one of the leading companies in the Central Europe focused on innovations and supporting innovators and with its focus on grant advisory it becomes an important part of Hopero when it comes to setting up strategies for obtaining resources for business companies. Civitta is also long-term ecosystem actor especially with regard to start-up community that is very important for improving competitiveness of Slovakia.
Independent and non-profit platform SAPIE takes care of community and ecosystem development as a basic element of sustainability and also strengthens digitalisation branch in our consortium. Its main goal is to establish network between private, public and non-profit actors.
SAS – Centre of Operations have an experience and computing means needed for machine learning models creation which is an important part due to Hopero´s focus on artificial intelligence. Business companies can obtain not only professional advice, but they can directly test new technologies as well.
We cannot recruit new members directly to consortium of the project because it is not possible due to ECDI scheme, nevertheless, we do it indirectly via ecosystem support and improving community. Hopero wants to approach hundreds of companies and organize dozens of activities exactly to be able to multiply our services effectiveness via common interactions.
What experience do you have with Slovak institutions and enterprises with regard to their digital standard and also their progress in digital transformation? How long can take such digital transformation of Slovak enterprise?
Digitalisation and digital transformation are quite common terms and consist of many levels. For that reason, it is not possible to answer this question unambiguously. Small change in information technologies use is sometimes enough to make an enormous impact on business, for example when organization repeatedly performs very many simple activities that can be replaced by technology to a large extent.
Anyway, one thing is quite evident and also many times confirmed: companies that implement new technologies and are not afraid of changes are able to innovate their products faster and obtain competitive advantage. Although many tasks are performed by machine and some positions can become less needed, in fact several new positions also appear.
You have mentioned at last year´s COINTT that all winners of competition “European centres for digital innovations in Slovakia” were not announced officially yet. Did it bring any obstacles to activities of those centres? How the situation seems now?
ECDI are projects operated according to scheme of co-financing by European Commission and member states of European Commission. Selection process was the same for all member states and happened in European Commission level within Digital Europe programme. As I have mentioned before, Hopero project officially started in September 2022 when grant agreement with European Commission was signed, although the agreement with Ministry of Investment, Regional Development and Informatization of the Slovak republic (MIRRI) that represents Slovakia was signed only at the end of July 2023. We were not able to start with project solution because it was not possible without customization on national level. Similar situation concerns also another ECDI projects in Slovakia.
I see great effort of current leaders of MIRRI to solve the situation, although nobody will probably give us back resources lost during all year.
You have mentioned possible directives to regulate artificial intelligence as legislative obstacle that influences ECDI activity. European parliament have recently adopted draft of regulations of its functioning (Artificial Intelligence Act). What impact can such regulations have on activity of ECDI and Slovak enterprises/institutions?
I believe the influence will be mostly positive. I really welcome activities contributing to raising awareness of ethical questions that AI systems bring. Implementation of these regulations will not be easy, but it is definitely good message for all of us, that Europe deals with these topics.
Our mission as ECDI in this field will be educating and preparing business companies to conditions demanded by the regulation. We will help them to be prepared for future already now to ensure that the regulation will have as smallest impact on activities of the company as possible when it comes into force.
What benefits will implementation of artificial intelligence into the processes bring to enterprises and institutions?
Artificial intelligence automatizes the world. Tasks performed by human so far are now performed by machine under human´s supervision or by human with the help of machine or in some cases by machine alone. So primarily it makes work more effective. Machine can for example sort orders, search for information or generate documents.
Artificial intelligence can also bring completely new scenarios that make able even something that did not exist before. We could for example predict road condition several hours before and then change winter road maintenance processes. Or automatically fold proteins and modify the way medicines are developed in.
Besides it enables us to do things more efficiently it also helps to do them better. We can for example realize if the text contains information that has been already verified somewhere in the world (fact checking) regardless of its language. Or lawyer can find supporting arguments for own legal opinion from cases already solved in the past via artificial intelligence that he would not have any chance to find manually before.
You focus on artificial intelligence topic from 2020 in Kempelen Institute for Intelligent Technologies (KInIT). In the article published in our journal Transfer Technológií Bulletin you mentioned that KInIT is the first institute that complete research and innovation environment and bring the possibility to improve significantly collaboration between academic sector and business companies. How do you see the knowledge and technology transfer role in your institute? Did you establish special workplace for intellectual property protection and commercialization within it?
Knowledge transfer is very important element in all chain from knowledge emergence to its commercialization. Without properly operating research institutions the business companies have to rely only on themselves which significantly slow them down compared to their competitors.
Kempelen Institute is quite a small so far, so we do not have special workplace for knowledge transfer. Despite it the structure of organization is not essential, I think, but decisive is how seriously we deal with intellectual property protection and knowledge transfer. We work on these questions in KInIT also in cooperation with our lawyers and pilot in our projects of research cooperations already in more than 20 companies.
Are you successful in cooperations with business companies as you expect? If yes, do they happen more often within direct technology transfer via contract research or through indirect technology transfer via selling or granting a license of existing technology?
Kempelen Institute is the first independent research institute not only in Slovakia, but also in all Central and Eastern European regions that connects business companies with the newest scientific knowledge financed primarily by private sector. I had not had any expectations when we started three years ago. Nevertheless, I knew by many examples from abroad that such institutions play very important roles in improving economy towards high added value.
So, we decided to try piloting in Slovakia what has been already successful abroad.
The most effective form is direct cooperation with business companies when KInIT provides know how, proof of concepts and jointly we transfer knowledge into the company’s environment. However, the problem is how many companies in Slovakia are ready to absorb scientific knowledge results. We still have a long way to go and Hopero as well as another ECDIs can really help Slovakia.
Main topic of this year’s COINTT is “White spaces in innovations and technology transfer”. Which “white spaces” do you identify when offering services to Slovak enterprises and institutions and also in their digital transformation related to artificial intelligence deployment?
We have many micro- and small companies in Slovakia, and we have also lagged behind in percentage of companies that actively digitalize. So, the preparedness to deploy artificial intelligence is naturally lower. We really need to improve cooperation between companies, they do not know each other mainly in regions.
Finally, I cannot omit the fact that although investments are really missing we have mainly lack of talent, professionals with knowledge in technology and also passionate to move Slovakia forward.