Nuria Oliver, Co-Founder @ ELLIS: Facilitate Multi-nation Collaboration for AI Research in Europe

Updated: Mar 11

Robin.ly Exclusive Interview at NeurIPS 2019


Nuria Oliver is Chief Scientific Adviser at the Vodafone Institute and Chief Data Scientist at DataPop Alliance. She also co-founded ELLIS (“European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems”), a professional association that aims to retain talent in the European Union and to facilitate multi-national collaboration for AI research.


During the interview with Robin.ly, Nuria Oliver shared ELLIS’ mission behind its latest announcement at NeurIPS 2019, and offered her advice on how individuals and organizations can get involved and support ELLIS.


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Nuria Oliver holds a Ph.D. degree from the Media Lab at MIT. She is an IEEE Fellow, a Fellow of the European Association of AI and the first female ACM Fellow from Spain. She was also elected as a permanent member of the Royal Academy of Engineering of Spain, being the youngest member and the fourth female. Nuria Oliver’s research interest covers human behavior modeling via machine learning, human-computer interaction, mobile computing, and big data for social good. Her research work has been cited in more than 17,000 publications.


View Dr. Oliver's tutorial on "Human Behavior Modeling with Machine Learning" at NeurIPS 2019.

Robin.ly is a content platform dedicated to helping engineers and researchers develop leadership, entrepreneurship, and AI insights to scale their impacts in the new tech era.


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Full Interview Transcripts



Margaret Laffan: I'm here with Nuria Oliver, who's on the board of ELLIS. We're going to talk about ELLIS's announcement yesterday. Nuria, you're the first female ACM Fellow from Spain. You've been working in AI very successfully for a long time. And you are on the board of ELLIS. ELLIS had a major announcement yesterday of $220 million in funding to retain talent in the European Union. From your perspective, why is this the biggest issue for you now addressing this within the European AI community?


Dr. Nuria Oliver:

Thank you so much for inviting us to talk about ELLIS. ELLIS means the “European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems”. It is a professional association, which results from a grassroots movement of some of the top scientists in Europe working in machine learning, realizing that Europe is lagging behind China and the US in terms of excellent research in AI.


One year ago, a group of us, European researchers in machine learning, were thinking that maybe we could contribute on how to change the situation, and we decided to create ELLIS. The goal of ELLIS is to create the necessary environment and instruments to enable top European research talent, mainly in AI, to be able to stay in Europe, to be able to contribute to Europe, and also to nurture the next generation of top talent, the Ph.D. students and postdocs working in AI, so they can also stay in Europe.


To do that, we have identified that there are three important reasons why excellent European researchers don't stay in Europe. The first one is because the salaries are not competitive if you compare them to US salaries or salaries from other regions. The second one is because most of the European researchers that are working in academia have very high teaching loads, so they don’t have enough time to do research. And the third one is because the European structures tend to be quite rigid and do not enable scientists to easily collaborate with industry, collaborate with companies, be advisors in companies, spin-off their own companies. And we believe that this is absolutely fundamental to enable the results of research to have a positive societal impact.

With ELLIS, we're trying to tackle these three barriers at the same time. One step towards tackling those barriers is the establishment of these ELLIS units that we announced yesterday. It is very inspiring because we managed to mobilize 28 different locations applied to become an ELLIS unit. With a total investment of hundreds of millions of euros, an external evaluation committee reviewed them and considered that 17 of them were ready enough to be able to be launched, which are the ones that we announced yesterday. Together, they've managed to mobilize over 200 million euros for the next five years. And this is all from the bottom up, a grassroots movement. So we think it is an inspiring European story on people mobilizing themselves and being proactive in trying to change the situation.



Margaret Laffan: You mentioned that some countries are involved and some agencies are involved. Who is involved in this program?


Dr. Nuria Oliver:

For any European researcher that becomes part of ELLIS, we have different ways that you can be involved. You can be a member: any researcher in machine learning and related topics can become a member.


In March 2019, we launched what we call “Research Programs”. We have 11 European research programs that are composed of 2 to 3 directors and 10 to 14 fellows. We've created the concept of an “ELLIS Fellow”, which is basically an excellent researcher in Europe working on a certain topic related to machine learning. These programs cover all sorts of topics from more fundamental, theoretical machine learning to topics more aligned with a certain use case, health or environmental sciences, to human-centric issues like the program that I co-direct. So you can become a fellow, that's another way you can collaborate. A lot of the fellows will be part of this unit that we are launching.

And we also have a “Sponsorship Program". Because we do want to have close ties with industry. We believe that positive societal and economic impact is critical for the success of ELLIS, but more importantly, for the success of AI in Europe. We want to have this really close ties as well. So depending on whether you're a researcher or you're working in the industry, there are different ways that you can get involved.


Margaret Laffan: We want to talk some more about that. It's well documented and you mentioned this already in terms of what the US and China are doing in the thriving AI ecosystem, especially with the heavily invested VC community, and of course with industry adoption of AI. What other parties need to play a bigger role in order for Europe to reach parity?


Dr. Nuria Oliver:

That is definitely the private investment part of it, where Europe doesn't have such a strong culture in VC compared to the US and China. There is also the government's role, which is very prominent in China. I think more than 26 countries in the world have already elaborated their AI national strategies because AI is transforming society way beyond just our technology.


So governments have an important role to play in terms of investments in research, in terms of creating the enabling factors for innovation to happen, in terms of adapting the regulation and legislation, in terms of simplifying visa issues, for example, to attract talent, in terms of defining ethical frameworks for a proper development of AI, so that we have positive impact on society and so forth. So we think the public sector has an important role to play.


And then we do believe that the frontier of AI involves investing in research. That's why one of the core focuses of ELLIS is investing in the excellent talent utilizing research because that's where the new ideas are going to come from, that's where the new innovations are going to come from. And that's where the competitive edge is going to come for Europe.


From left to right: Nuria Oliver (Ellis Board), Margaret Laffan (Robin.ly Host)

Margaret Laffan: ELLIS is supported by multiple EU countries. How do you facilitate cross-country collaboration for AI research?


Dr. Nuria Oliver:

That's one of the cornerstones of ELLIS - uniting and connecting a lot of efforts that are excellent, but right now are isolated. By belonging to ELLIS, you automatically belong to the network. Right now we have 17 units in 10 countries. But we also have the research programs which cover many other countries. The programs host workshops, at least twice a year that gather all the researchers from all these different countries. In the workshops, we brainstorm, we come up with new research ideas and collaborations.

We're also launching a Ph.D. and postdoc ELLIS program for the top postdocs and Ph.D. students in Europe. That will be a competitive selection program. If you're selected by the Ph.D. ELLIS program, you actually have two mentors in two different countries. And by definition, you will spend time in both locations. And that's another way to ensure that there's a lot of mobility and collaboration within Europe.


Margaret Laffan: We have a large European audience. What are your suggestions and call to actions for researchers and AI professionals to get involved and support ELLIS?


Dr. Nuria Oliver:

I think the first call to action is to go to ELLIS's website (Ellis.eu) and to get familiar with it. If some people are active researchers in machine learning, I encourage them to become members. If they are doing research on some of the topics of the programs, I encourage them to contact the program directors and see if they can get involved in some way. If they're working in institutions that they would like to become an ELLIS unit, I encourage them to apply to the next call, which will be in March 2020. If they are working in the industry, I encourage them to consider being a sponsor of ELLIS, either in one particular country that's more meaningful to them or in the entire organization of ELLIS like the headquarters.


I always encourage people to talk about ELLIS to give it visibility and to inspire the next generation of talent to consider it as a very competitive opportunity, developing their career in Europe and staying in Europe. Because we do believe that Europe has a lot of potentials. We believe that Europe has a lot of positive attributes in terms of the values it has and how societies are established. That's why we really want to make sure that Europe will be very relevant in this very important discipline, such as AI.


Margaret Laffan: Absolutely. Nuria, thank you so much for joining us this morning.


Dr. Nuria Oliver: Thank you.


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