The President of ‘the most advanced digital society in the world’ visited the UK’s most innovative university yesterday.
Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid met academics and Estonian students as she toured the College’s Dyson Robotics Lab and Data Science Institute, before leading a discussion about collaboration in the age of Industry 4.0.
Academic, business and student leaders from Estonia joined President Kaljulaid at Imperial. They included Dr Jaak Aaviksoo, Rector of Tallinn University of Technology, Dr Eduard Petlenkov, Head of the Centre for Intelligent Systems, and Indrek Petjärv Head of the Formula Student Team Tallinn.
Professor Nigel Brandon, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, briefed President Kaljulaid on Imperial’s research, societal impact and collaborations, including the largest hackspace of its kind in the world – of particular interest to the President of Europe’s most entrepreneurial country.
The President toured the Dyson Robotics Lab, where Professor Andrew Davison, Dr Stefan Leutenegger and Dr Ed Johns showed how their work in AI and computer vision are finding new applications in home robotics. Over the last decade, Professor Davison’s work helped Dyson to create the 360 Eye robot vacuum cleaner, which impressed the President, but led her to point out that “it can’t climb stairs.”
He also demonstrated how the group’s advances in Elastic Fusion enable cheap cameras to take swift 3D images of local environments, making home robotic navigation more powerful.
Dr Ed Johns showed how he is using AI to teach robot claws to grasp a wide variety of objects.
The President saw how Dr Leutenegger and colleagues are combining these techniques to improve the accuracy and reliability of drones.
Future of manufacturing
During a tour of the Global Data Observatory, Dr David Birch and colleagues explained how the Data Science Institute is leading research in fields like blockchain, smart contracts and behavioural analytics.
At the DSI, Dr Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye discussed computational privacy and how he has worked with Estonian and other international partners to raise standards on data security. Earlier today, Dr de Montjoye was appointed special adviser to the EU's Competition Commissioner.
Dr Florian Guitton spoke about TranSMART and AI in healthcare, while Dr Doug McIlwraith presented on London’s thriving tech scene.
Dr Jaak Aaviksoo, Rector of Tallinn University of Technology, and the wider Estonian delegation visited Imperial’s Dynamic Fracture and Forming Lab where Professor Jianguo Lin and Dr Liliang Wang introduced the College’s diverse set of work in additive manufacturing, ranging from robotics to food processing.
In the 3D Printing Lab, part of the Micro-Engineering Facility for Medical Robotics, Dr Jonathan Jeffers showed how the latest laser and 3D printing technology is enabling his group to develop highly personalised knee replacements.
First mover advantage
After touring the College, President Kaljulaid addressed a group of Imperial academics, students and innovators, as well as partners from government and business, at the Estonian Embassy.
She said: “Estonia is a society which embraces technology. We’re known for IT, but it’s broader than that,” encompassing Industry 4.0 and AI. The President, who studied genetics at university, spoke about Estonia’s pioneering work in establishing the Estonian Genome Foundation as well as some of the world’s first regulations in the field. “20 years later, we’re reaping the benefits,” she said.
The Baltic state is now developing a legal and regulatory environment for AI and automated systems, she said: “Estonia will remain a sandbox for technological developments.”
During a Q&A the President emphasised the importance of combining such responsible regulation with experimentation: “The Cambridge Analytica scandal shouldn’t be allowed to cause people to lose faith in digital services.”
Estonia has collaborated on 18 EU-funded FP7 and Horizon 2020 research projects with Imperial, worth more than €300 million. President Kaljulaid expressed her support for FP9, saying “it’s good that European research grants are geographically neutral, merit based and competitive on a level playing field.”
Learning from Estonia
Liam Maxwell, the UK’s National Technology Adviser, responded to the President by talking about how much UK government online services have been inspired by Estonia.
“Our story here relies enormously on the impact of a number of Estonians who changed the way we do government here,” he said.
“Like Estonia we’re a country that lives by its wits. We don’t have huge natural resources… we have to rely on our people.”
“We have huge opportunities for collaboration” in the digital economy. “It is not a zero-sum game. If companies succeed and grow in Talinn that is good for us too.”
Vice Provost (Research and Enterprise) Professor Nick Jennings outlined the “breadth of discovery-led research and technological innovation at Imperial,” which aligns with Estonia’s approach. He said: “I often speak about Estonia when I talk about how good computer science can inform society.
Meeting the Estonian delegation, Professor Jennings was fascinated by the way they are working with Smart Grid testbeds, touching the entire country’s population.
Tallinn University of Technology’s Rector Dr Jaak Aaviksoo touched on Estonia’s pioneering work in the 1990s to connect all 659 Estonian schools to the internet. “Some say Estonia is a small country – that’s not true, we’re a very small country. But sometimes we can make big things happen.”
He added: “I’m happy I met Estonian students at Imperial – they show how Imperial is a truly global institution.”
Earlier this morning, the Talinn University of Technology group visited Imperial’s Carbon Capture Pilot Plant with executives from the College’s corporate partner ABB.
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