More efficient drug development, work automation, prediction of customer behavior or, for example, improved weather forecasting. All this can enter artificial intelligence, which is an increasingly important component not only of science but also of business.
That is why the prg.ai association has a bold goal – to make Prague a European center for artificial intelligence. The association recently received a financial contribution of nine million from the capital for the transformation of Prague into a superhub of artificial intelligence and its support in education and business.
“Undoubtedly, we have excellent scientific groups in Prague, in several cases of world importance,” says Lenka Kučerová, director of the prg.ai association, which was founded by scientists from the Czech Technical University, Charles University and the Academy of Sciences. “But if we want to compete with other European AI hubs, it is essential that scientists get decent working and life conditions,” he adds.
Why do you think it is important to talk about artificial intelligence at the moment?
Because it is a technology that now permeates most human activities. We use it every day without realizing it – artificial intelligence is based on such obvious tools as spam filtering, searching for a route on a smartphone or recommending products in e-shops.
It is also beginning to play an irreplaceable role in the development of new drugs, used in the exploration of cosmic bodies, the discovery of archaeological sites or the restoration of images. Of course, we cannot ignore its importance for automation and robotization of work.
And precisely because it is such an all-encompassing technology, it is necessary to talk about it. Only if people are aware of its benefits and risks will they be able to use it to contribute to the growth of the standard of living of society as a whole.
On the website, you write that behind the founding of the prg.ai association is the vision of using the potential of Prague and transforming it into a European center of artificial intelligence. What should Prague do for it?
The development of human capital at all levels of education is important. There is a need to build an ecosystem that enables and provides students, researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, officials and all those interested in artificial intelligence with information, experience, relationship development and collaboration opportunities. As a small non-profit association, we manage to play these two roles well.
However, the transformation of Prague in the European center of AI will not be possible without the close cooperation of academia and industry, especially without massive investments by the state. To illustrate, the UK government has pledged billions of pounds to support artificial intelligence and robotics research, and by 2022 France will redistribute billions and a half of euros to develop the AI economy. And we are only talking about Europe.
How is it outside Europe?
They are even further in Canada, the United States or China. The Czech Republic has had a National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence since 2019, but we have not seen any specific steps or assistance from the state in this direction in the implementation of development platforms such as us or Brno.AI.
Even according to the ideas of the Prague leadership, the city is to become a super-hub of artificial intelligence, which is to be one of the pillars of the Prague post-Jewish economy. Does Prague have to become such a center?
In Prague, we undoubtedly have excellent scientific groups, in several cases of world importance, especially in the areas of image recognition, natural language processing and robotics. An example is the CTU-CRAS team, which repeatedly gets to the top of the prestigious competition of the American research agency DARPA or the recently published ranking of scientists from CTU. Furthermore, there are more and more promising startups, such as Rossum, Resistant AI or Recombee. On the other hand, it is true that we have woefully few AI projects with global potential that have emerged from university research.
Why is that so?
Czech industry is generally quite hesitant about cooperating with academia and applying AI to its products and services; our scientific community is fragmented and under-represented in international AI structures.
I am afraid that with regard to the global struggle for AI experts, and thus sharply rising salaries, we will not be able to keep many promising scientists in Prague or the Czech academic field and attract foreign brains. Thus, the future of the Czech AI scene and its ability to create a suitable environment for competitive projects is at stake.
So how do you attract brains that can move society and business forward?
We conducted an in-depth survey among foreign AI scientists working in Prague. They are attracted by the high quality of research, the results of specific local researchers and the metropolis itself as an attractive place to live. They are concerned about the unavailability of housing and low wage conditions. So again, we come to the financing. If we want to compete with other European AI hubs, it is essential that scientists have decent conditions.
Then it is important that academic institutions in general and research groups should have excellent international leadership, do quality marketing and networking, and generally develop a kind of scientific business development. They should follow the example of the private sector in this regard. Promising Prague AI companies are increasingly not only attracting brains, but also maintaining them.
We have a crisis behind us that has affected almost all sectors. How can artificial intelligence contribute to the restart of the economy?
I refer to the analysis of the consulting firm McKinsey from last year, which identified the slow pace of digitization as the most pressing problems of the Czech economy, especially in manufacturing, retail, but also in the public sector, high employment and declining high costs of the Czech Republic strength.
According to McKinsey, it would be possible to automate the redirection of jobs in the Czech Republic today, which would be possible for the growth of sectors such as hospitality, manufacturing or construction, logistics, agriculture or construction, which has long been facing labor shortages. This, of course, entails the need for professional development.
Some industries will radically change or disappear under the weight of new technologies. The near future of the world economy is no longer in the production line, but in educated and creative people, and in this respect the Czech Republic is starting to lag far behind in my opinion.
What can business and entrepreneurs themselves take from the AI field?
It is important to say in advance that artificial intelligence is just a tool. Many companies believe that buying a smart solution based on AI, machine learning or data analytics elements will skyrocket their profits. However, the introduction of AI into or into services requires comprehensive preparation from a clear naming of the company’s needs through the acquisition and structuring of relevant data and process settings to the retraining of employees.
If this transformation succeeds, artificial intelligence can optimize and optimize routine tasks, increase automation and decision-making speed, provide real-time production analysis, prevent problems in making the right business decision, predict customer behavior or other personalized customer experiences.
Prague has recently focused on the issue of Smart Cities and smart applications. City company The ICT operator strives to provide open city data. Do you think this is the right approach? Do you currently have a city in this direction?
The concept of smart cities has undergone a gradual development during its existence. Compared to the past, when smart city meant mainly the acquisition of various gadgets in public space, the city now focuses mainly on projects streamlining the management and procurement of public services. A good example is sorted waste containers equipped with fullness sensors, which have reduced the total number of collection. The gradual development of the PID Lítačka transport application is also important, through which in the future it should be possible to plan part of the route, even with your own car, and reserve a place for it in the parking lot.
In general, the management of Prague has been trying in recent years to reap the benefits of decision-making based on real data. Although the Prague Golemio data platform has only been operating since 2018, during that time it has already offered more than a hundred datasets, which it provides to city organizations and the public. Thanks to Golemi, for example, it is possible to better manage the distribution of the vaccine in Prague, monitor citizens’ interest in vaccinations or model the availability of hospital beds.
How do you evaluate the position of the Czech Republic on the technological scene? Can we take as an indicator of the rise, for example, that the 3D printer Josef Průša became the entrepreneur of the year?
I have been working on the Czech technological scene for twelve years and I am convinced that it has undergone a truly impressive development. Investors led by Credo Ventures significantly contribute to the rapid growth of Czech and foreign startups and have become sought-after partners for world leaders, such as Index Ventures or Andreessen Horowitz. A class of serial entrepreneurs emerged, who not only start new businesses after successful exits, but also reinvest their experience and acquired capital back into the ecosystem. Thanks to a recent investment in Rohlík, Avast is no longer the only Czech unicorn, and other companies such as Productboard will certainly not have to wait long.
On the other hand, it should be noted that innovative fields would grow to a large extent if the system were in favor of them. The bureaucratic burden is high and the malfunction of employee option programs makes it difficult to attract and motivate prospective co-workers. Little progress in areas such as the development of the entrepreneurial spirit of children and youth or the digitization of public administration are further obstacles to the Czech innovation potential and competitiveness.
You yourself are professionally involved in business support and you have, for example, founded the CzechAccelerator program, which helps Czech technology companies with access to Silicon Valley. Can you highlight some fields that we really know in the Czech Republic?
Czech developers and their products and services have a world name across the entire ICT spectrum. AI is worth mentioning the area of cyber security of computer games, which, in addition to a billion companies in the year of state support, achieved over five revenues such as Beat Saber, Bohemia Interactive or Warhorse Studios, due to the absence of formal education or targeted support. Traditionally, we are world leaders in various fields of precision engineering, such as the development and production of electronic microscopes or radar systems.
We also come to the forefront of advanced materials such as single crystals, polymers or nanofibers. Long development cycles and a lack of venture capital have hampered the development of biotechnology, but thanks to the recently established billion-dollar fund, Czechs will soon build on the global success of Professor Holý and his colleagues at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry.
How can artificial intelligence contribute to a better life for people?
In connection with the current pandemic, but also future threats in this category, AI is gaining ground in healthcare, whether in patient care, more accurate disease diagnosis or drug development. Artificial intelligence also allows remote surgery, even between continents, or the delivery of blood to hard-to-reach areas using drones.
In education, we already know examples of personalizing the educational process, automatically correcting tests, tutoring using chatbots or tools that provide access to education for people with special needs or in remote locations. He can also create models of further development, which he uses, for example, in meteorology to improve weather forecasting and natural disasters. Overall, it has the potential to improve your life wherever you can work with data.
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