Game Changers: Nuria Oliver on Artificial Intelligence

Nuria Oliver is a leading researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence, based in Alicante, Spain. In this interview with EURACTIV, Nuria talks about why we are currently living in the “Golden Age” of AI, how she personally got involved in the field, and her thoughts on how Europe can be a global leader in AI.


Hi, I’m Nuria Oliver. I live in Alicante, Spain, and I am a researcher in artificial intelligence.

AI has captured the imagination of humans since the concept existed, which is actually a very long time. It has had moments of hype and it has had dark moments through its history because it always captures the imagination and also there’s a lot of science fiction around AI.

Today we live in one of these moments of hype and the golden age of AI, and I think it’s fundamentally due to two/three key reasons. The first one is the availability of data. Today we live in a world of big data. The second one is the availability of large amounts of computation and specific architectures of computation like GPUs. And the third one is the development of architectures based on an old model, which is like a neural network model, but sophisticated architectures with a lot of layers and a lot of neurons that are able to learn from all this data and identify patterns in a very efficient way.

Artificial intelligence algorithms can recognise images, like objects and images, or can recognise speech, or can analyse text, even better than humans in many cases because it’s a transversal technology that can be used in many different fields. It’s everywhere. So even today, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, we interact with AI systems that are invisible and not robots, they are software systems, but they are everywhere. The news that you read, the friends that you befriend on social networks, the movies that you find, how you go from A to B if you use a mapping application, the information that you find, all of this is mediated by AI systems. So the power that they have is very big.

In addition, there are certain AI systems that are being used for making public decisions. For example, deciding if you get, what kind of sentence you get in a trial, or for determining if you are accepted in a certain university or not, or if you receive a certain medical treatment or not. So the impact can also be very big on people’s lives.

To me, the key is to always bring it from the perspective of how technology is helping us, how is it augmenting us, how is it providing us with, you know, maybe abilities that we weren’t born with or that we are lacking. For example, people who can’t hear or can’t see and so forth. And really focus on that, on the elements where we can really have a positive impact, which are a lot of them.

I’m a very curious person, and I’m very interested in learning almost anything. I really like learning. So when I was growing up, I was fascinated by this idea of being a scientist, being an inventor, discovering something new. I had a chance to meet with one of my brother’s friends who had just started studying electrical engineering and computer science in Madrid. And he came to Alicante and he explained to me what that was about, and then I was like, wow, I want to study that. I remember that was a very important moment for me. Having that conversation with a real person with firsthand experience can really inspire someone. If I hadn’t talked to him, maybe I wouldn’t have studied electrical engineering and computer science.

So when I started in Madrid, it was my discovery of technology and the power of technology, and very quickly I realised that what really motivated me was how I could make machines that would understand us as a necessary step to have machines that actually can help us. And then since roughly 2005 or so, I realised that the most personal computer was actually the phone, and it has this beauty which is that it’s with you all the time, so if you want to build something that understands people, the phone is like the best tool because it’s always with a person. So I almost exclusively since then have been working on analysing human behaviour through the lens of phones to, on the one hand, make phones that serve the name of smartphones, but also on the other hand to leverage the large-scale and aggregated human behavioural data that there is today because of the ubiquity of phones to actually help us make better decisions globally.

A lot of the challenges that we face as a species — we won’t be able to solve them without the help of AI, be it the aging of the population, which is a very big problem in Europe, for example, be it the prevalence of chronic diseases, be it environmental challenges, you know, climate change, education, all of these are areas that are transformed and will be transformed by AI. The potential is huge and we cannot not embrace it. And I think as Europeans we should definitely very seriously decide how we can be active contributors to this revolution that is definitely going to be necessary for our survival.

We also need to be extremely knowledgeable about the strengths but also the limitations of today’s systems. For Europe, I would consider it very important to identify and invest on what are the key, sort of like strategic lines and what is the vision that we have for how Europe can continue to be relevant in this space knowing that both these two big superpowers, you know, the U.S. and China, are very heavily investing in AI and they are holding leadership on it.

Finally, we have the ethical dimension. We should always ensure that whatever use we are making of this technology is in alignment with our ethical values that as a society we follow and we accept and we embrace.