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Explaining and understanding artificial intelligence made easy

3/2021 EN
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What is “artificial” and “intelligent” about technology? For people outside this field, it is often difficult to understand how artificial intelligence works. ZHAW researchers are developing methods to help here.

The technology that lies behind artificial intelligence (AI) can seem invisible and sometimes even scary to many. People often do not realise that applications are underpinned by an AI system. This is the case, for example, when AI makes recommendations based on our previous decisions when we are browsing Netflix or shopping online. Manuel Holler from the ZHAW School of Management and Law refers to this as an “AI moment,” in other words an everyday situation in which the effect of AI is surprisingly felt.

Personal “AI moments”

Identifying personal “AI moments” is often the starting point for wanting to better understand the technology and being able to explain how it works to others. AI is present and relevant in many areas: students will develop AI applications or use them during their careers, management figures make use of AI at their companies, politicians are faced with the task of deciding on the relevant political and economic framework conditions and we all encounter AI in our everyday lives.

AI in business and management

Automation and AI play a major role at many companies. This not only relates to automated production processes and supply chains, but rather also products that are created through the intelligent processing of data and thus open up new business models. Manuel Holler from the ZHAW Product Management Center (page available in German only) has therefore developed a workshop concept that allows for the basic features of AI to be explained in a playful manner during events, for example as part of the CAS in Digital Product Management (page available in German only). The CAS is aimed at product managers who work in industry and deal with digital and networked products or processes. “For companies, it is about evaluating how the use of AI can create added value and make them more competitive. They want to know whether the use of AI is worthwhile at their company and what they need for it,” says Holler. 

“It is important that the population of Switzerland is made more aware of the technology and its impact.”

Manuel Holler, ZHAW Product Management Center

The workshop is not just about the technology, but rather about making AI tangible. “The concept includes examples from everyday life as well as playful elements and online tools,” says Holler. The limitations of AI and existing misconceptions are also addressed. “Some believe that AI will one day take over all jobs, while opponents think that their profession and industry are much too specialised for AI. The workshop aims to allow participants to try out many things for themselves and thus better understand the opportunities and limits of AI,” says Holler. 

Promoting awareness among the population

His concept or elements of it are also to be used in other workshops at the Institute of Marketing Management or for other target groups. “It is important that the population of Switzerland is made more aware of the technology and its impact. This will allow them to better understand the framework conditions, such as aspects relating to data protection and IT infrastructure, as well as AI’s impact on the competitiveness of Switzerland and funding for research and start-ups,” says Holler. 

An AI atlas provides guidance through the technology landscape

In order to develop the technology further in future, students require application-oriented knowledge of AI. According to Thilo Stadelmann, Head of the new Centre for Artificial Intelligence at the ZHAW School of Engineering, university courses on AI are needed that, in addition to theory, also teach a certain mindset for life-long learning. “We need to teach students solid fundamentals of IT while the field evolves at a rapid pace. Our teaching needs to be practice-oriented and relevant to a wide range of professions,” says Stadelmann. 

“As in a world atlas, we imagine the sub-disciplines of AI as individual islands in an atoll.”

Thilo Stadelmann, Head of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence

Together with other researchers and lecturers, he has developed an “AI atlas” for university teaching. “As in a world atlas, we imagine the sub-disciplines of AI as individual islands in an atoll. While they are well developed, there is often no direct link between them. Our AI atlas should help in providing an overview and in identifying the main routes, signposts and borders.” 

As AI is not about creating artificial intelligence, but rather about solving complex problems, AI represents a methodological toolbox. “AI is less shaped by technology than by a certain mentality. Researchers have always approached problems with creativity and pragmatism. In other words, their work has seen them explore previously unknown areas,” says Stadelmann.

Ethics and advice for politicians

In order to create the framework conditions for AI, political decision-makers are dependent on advice from the academic community. Ricardo Chavarriaga, Head of CLAIRE Switzerland, is promoting the responsible use of AI with the European network CLAIRE. “CLAIRE addresses ethical, legal and societal concerns relating to the development of AI. As researchers, we need to get involved and provide a clear idea of where we currently stand with this technology. This can help to develop appropriate governance that determines which applications are considered necessary or safe,” says Chavarriaga.

 “It is important that decision-makers have access to independent, unbiased experts who can advise them.”

Ricardo Chavarriaga, Head of CLAIRE Switzerland

In addition to the complex technical aspects, it is crucial to understand the many different areas of AI development and application, explains Chavarriaga. “It is therefore important that decision-makers have access to independent, unbiased experts who can advise them. They should come from different fields, thus allowing for a comprehensive analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of using AI in a specific scenario. This means that AI experts should also learn more about policy-making and diplomacy so that they can communicate efficiently and contribute to the process,” says Chavarriaga.