Opinions ETH Domain Higher education Research infrastructures Artificial intelligence International cooperation

Artificial intelligence: big opportunities, big challenges

Last October, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosted an international summit in London on artificial intelligence (AI) safety. It was attended by representatives from government and the public sector, the (high-tech) business sector and civil society from some 30 countries, including Switzerland.

Author: Martina Hirayama
Martina Hirayama State Secretary for Education, Research and Innovation
Martina Hirayama has been State Secretary for Education, Research and Innovation since 1 January 2019. Image: Monique Wittwer

The summit showed that there is broad agreement on the vast as yet unexploited potential offered by digitalisation in general and AI in particular. However, there are also serious concerns. New technologies always raise questions about their impact on human rights, society and the rule of law. In the context of AI, it is important to address the risks in an appropriate way.

Science has a key role to play – not only in developing the technology and harnessing the potential of AI, but also in properly assessing the technology and addressing the societal challenges it poses. For these reasons, SERI supports the active involvement of the scientific community in the follow-up work to the London AI summit.

At the national level, Switzerland is doing its homework. The world-renowned Dalle Molle Research Institutes for Artificial Intelligence in Lugano and Martigny were founded in the late 1980s and early 1990s respectively. The ETH Domain has also invested heavily in recent years, creating a central hub for AI at the ETH AI Centre, which serves the 16 departments of ETH Zurich (ETHZ). The AI Institute at EPF Lausanne (EPFL) plays a similar role. At the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre in Lugano, the ETHZ will put into operation next year its new Alps supercomputer, which will be particularly suitable for AI applications in addition to traditional computer-assisted simulations. And the Swiss Data Science Centre, founded by the EPFL and ETHZ, focuses on the interface between those who generate data and those who can potentially benefit from it. This will help bridge the gap between research and business.

Other universities have also strengthened their expertise: the University of Bern has set up the Centre for Artificial Intelligence in Medicine; its aim is to use AI to improve the quality of healthcare. The Competence Centre in Artificial Intelligence Applications for the Public Sector at the University of Lausanne supports Swiss and international institutions in the implementation of AI. And the Centre for Artificial Intelligence at Zurich University of Applied Sciences is a major competence centre for applied AI.

The Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences are also contributing to the scientific and social debate on AI, through the Artificial Intelligence Topical Platform run by the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences. The federal government, through the Swiss National Science Foundation, also supports research in AI, both through bottom-up project funding and national research programmes (NRP 75 and 77)

The above examples show that Switzerland is generally well positioned in terms of AI research. The challenge now is to find ways for companies to harness this potential. Data from an innovation survey conducted by the Swiss Economic Institute shows that while the use of AI is on the rise, less than 10 per cent of Swiss companies are currently using it.

SERI has called on key ERI stakeholders to consistently take into account the societal, scientific and economic aspects of digital transformation in drawing up their strategic objectives for the 2025-2028 funding period. This will ensure that the Swiss ERI system is well prepared for future developments in digitalisation.