As the Founder of Kempelen Institute of Intelligent Technologies (KInIT), a non-profit institute dedicated to intelligent technology research, Mária Bieliková is a driving force behind Slovakia’s growing leadership in the global technology industry.
“KInIT’s mission is to bring excellent science to industry. We are international as excellent science should always be international, but we concentrate on challenges useful in our region,” says Mária. For example, in Slovakia, it is crucial for AI to have a firm grasp on the Slovak language, meaning it must be built on quality data.
The institute focuses on several areas and applications of intelligent technology, such as green energy, information security, natural language processing, analysis of human-machine interactions and more.
“All of these include machine learning and ethics,” Mária explains. For the technical part, she describes how she and her colleagues “teach machines to predict or classify things based on data.” For the ethical side, she says “we ask questions so that we are able to identify the impacts of our activities.” Both the technical and ethical sides of AI are central pillars of Mária’s STEM career.
While Mária was always interested in the humanities, specifically psychology and sociology, she also excelled at mathematics. This combination influenced her decision to pursue a career in technology, as she believes both the humanities and mathematics are necessary for ensuring that technology truly helps society.
Mária’s career choice was also largely influenced by her father, sister, brother, uncle and brother-in-law -- all of whom work in technology. She also cites her colleague, friend and supervisor, Professor Pavol Návrat, as one of her mentors. “He was my supervisor when I was working on my master thesis and doctoral dissertation, and he was always a source of inspiration to me,” Mária says. In addition to Professor Návrat, she says her students and younger colleagues have challenged and inspired her throughout her career.
Mária has spent more than 30 years at the university, including 15 years as a full professor. “I’ve always enjoyed combining teaching, basic and applied research, and team leading,” Mária says. She also has more than 20 years of experience in web user modeling, and is currently the leading researcher at KInIT, focusing on human-computer interaction modeling and machine learning.
“[For the] last five years, I’ve been working in data analysis and modeling of antisocial behavior on the web. Together with colleagues we work on automatic auditing of social media recommendations, analyzing disinformation bubbles in social networks and researching AI-based support for the fact-checking process,” she describes.
The technology industry excites Mária because it changes and constantly presents new challenges. “Like everyone, I like stability, but every change brings with it a lot of emotions and opportunities,” she says.
Mária reflects on how remarkable it has been to witness AI develop over time. “I partly experienced the boom of AI in the 80’s when I worked on a diagnostic expert system,” she notes. “Artificial intelligence in particular is doing very well now, and it is actually its third good [growth] period.”
In fact, Mária highlights that AI is now applied across almost all industries. “We can find AI applications in communication, security, entertainment, transportation, health, logistics... Many robots use AI for sensing or acting in situations that were not foreseen in advance,” she says. This is especially evident in the health domain, where AI is being utilized to help doctors recognize anomalies in the human body.
As AI takes off across all industries, Mária explains that many companies are deploying off-the-shelf solutions instead of developing their own technology, since the data sets, computing power and specialists required to develop AI are often inaccessible and hard to find. However, she says it is still important to involve experts in adapting off-the-shelf products to fit the unique needs of organizations to ensure AI solutions drive the most value for businesses.
Mária knows that for those who do not understand AI and machine learning, even on a basic level, the technology can instill a sense of fear. “Fears and misguided expectations have always been related mostly to [lack of] knowledge,” she says.
Even those working directly with AI may be surprised by how or why it works. “Since they are working in fields where it was unimaginable for us that machines would one day outperform us, it raises concerns,” says Mária. Machine learning is so advanced today in its ability to recognize human emotion and provide personalized responses that it can be alarming to humans. “It [can seem] that AI systems really understand what they do,” she says.
Mária believes, however, that AI will likely never have its own consciousness. When it comes to the danger of intelligent technology, she explains how it is not the technology itself that is dangerous – the danger is in how people use it.
It is important to also focus on the numerous ways in which AI can and will be used for the betterment of humanity. In the future, Mária looks forward to seeing how AI will be used to treat diseases, and improve communication by breaking language barriers. Even today, there are AI applications and advancements that make Mária feel as though she is already living in the future, such as the use by municipalities of reinforcement learning to discover optimal tax systems.
For AI to truly improve how we live, however, everyone must be involved or, at the very least, represented.
Supporting Women in STEM
“There will always be more men than women in STEM, as in other fields that count on more women than men, but definitely all the women with necessary abilities and skills should be involved. And we are still a long way from that,” says Mária. To address the tech industry’s gender gap, Mária believes men must also be involved in advocating for women and girls who want to pursue STEM.
For women currently pursuing careers in STEM, Mária shares several pieces of invaluable advice. “Do your best, be curious, if you start enjoying what you are doing, you will join the best of the best,” she says. Mária also encourages women to talk to many people and build a high quality, diverse network of both men and women. She also reminds women they do not need to excel in STEM disciplines to succeed in the job market, but says it is always good to explore and develop STEM-related skills.
Finally, for when days are challenging or disappointing, she reminds women to trust themselves and continue working hard. “The number of errors and failures everyone has experienced is higher than the number of achievements you can see,” Mária says.