Artificial Intelligence Center FEE CTU
The AI Center (AIC) at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering of the Czech Technical University in Prague was co-founded by Michal Pěchouček with his colleagues and postgraduate students in 2000. What interested them the most was were the field of AI was heading and what use it could have in 20 years. They created a world-renowned centre with nowadays more than 70 great scientific members and academics from all over the world. Their fields of interests are many, from robotics to cybersecurity or game theory. The Centre cooperates with both domestic and international research and grant agencies, start-ups and large corporations, non-profits and prestigious foreign universities. They engage in calls from industrial sectors, test new ways to apply AI and literally search for answers which could make an impact on our society.
A Top-class research filled with meaning for
THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY
We publish in prestigious journals, our works are often cited and deemed excellent in the scientific community. Scientists use our results for their own work and as foundations for new research.
We want Prague to become a world centre for AI and machine-learning research. But nothing happens over night. That is why, for the past years, we have been taking steps, writing lines and creating commands in a field we can excel in at a global level
Our main goal is to make our work useful for the society and everyday life. We want technology to have a positive impact on society, to help people with cybersecurity, climatic changes or their use of transport. Our algorithms make wifi routers safer, decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in cities and predict the impact of autonomous vehicles. We are here to make technology helpful for people.
THE INDUSTRY AND START-UPS
We cooperate on mutual projects with many companies. We founded research labs with other companies. There we look for and deal with AI-connected moonshots. It is very important for us that the results of our work are used in industry and practically applied in business. The several start-ups we helped launch are a proof of that. Among these is Cognitive Security, a start-up purchased by the American company Cisco in 2013.
Scientists of the world!
We want to attract great people form all over the world to Prague. Nowadays, a third of our employees and half of our postgraduate students are foreign. You can meet people from Germany, Iran, Argentina, Greece, Poland, the UK and many more. English is much more common in our corridors than Czech, all of our internal communication is Czech-English. Our foreign colleagues are an important part of our teams and we are grateful for their experience. We value that they are different, with a different way of thinking – that helps us grow. At first, we cooperate externally, after that we help with moving, visas, communication with Czech offices and anything that might be needed. We are happy we have managed to create an environment with conditions comparable to those of the top-class centres in Europe.
We have always believed in a more colourful and complicated world that cannot be saved by technology alone – more research is needed. We keep our research connected to other topics. That is what makes us interesting and capable of being relevant, even today.
There are no limits
We want to create excellent research and be among the best of the best. That is why we do not put our time into questions which might be relevant in a year. We focus on moonshots - technological and scientific problems whose relevance reaches to years into the future. We need to cooperate to deal with such challenges. We create an environment which connects people who are great at gradual research with those excellent at long-term research. This method bears fruit. We have been published in the Science journal, taken part in prestigious conferences all over the world, we were successful in a robotic challenge on the American agency DARPA and we are receiving more and more calls for interesting projects and scientific challenges. We believe there are no limits.
A Start-up? Why not!
Many of our people have launched start-ups or are a part of one. Generally, there is an atmosphere of openness – if you come up with something, you can take it outside. We are not selfish. We do not try to keep ideas hidden in a secret chamber.
We believe that when we help someone and achieve to transform an idea into a functional start-up, it will have a multiple return.
A common situation here is that people end up cooperating with us based on a micro-contract. That way they stay in touch with the university and gradually spread their experience among colleagues and students. 5 start-ups launched with our help have already transformed into successful companies.
AI in context...
We knew from the very start that we need to research AI in context in order to achieve not only scientific but also social impact. We must not isolate it from the outside world. Apart from AI we make research in the fields of machine learning, game theory, automated planning, multi-agent systems, cybersecurity, robotics and many other topics. We keep up with the rest of the world thanks to that. In Europe, there are not many places that deal with AI in such a complex way, and in such broad range of areas. This makes us subjects to stringent requirements and, more importantly, brings us towards very interesting scientific challenges.
The AIC combines the research of machine learning and cybersecurity, which makes the project unique.
Our research is of high quality. The presence of sharing and cooperation is great. That is keeping us moving forward.
We have a vision of what will be going on in 10 years. We don’t find trying to solve today’s traffic problems interesting, we focus on the problems which will be here in the future. I think right now I own the last car I will ever own, or even drive.
Half of the people here have founded a start-up or are a part of one. It‘s common here. At the same time, it‘s really nice that they stay here on a micro-contract so they keep in touch with the university and its students. The faculty is supportive of that.
On the same boat
Even though we come from all parts of the world and are of different ages, we are on the same wavelength and even appreciate the same humour. Our base is the coffee machine where we meet the most often. We get chatting, laughing, even solving some problems. And sometimes, when we're all working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we meet not at the coffee machine, but online.
And the coffee machine is not the only place we meet. We have an internal seminar every week where we solve professional problems and help each other out. We make use of the synergies of professionals from various fields as many ideas come as a product of a conversation between two researchers of different expertise. We do not compete with each other. There is no title or success that would give anyone the right to play a single-player mode. We are all on the same boat, we have the same goals and we support each other.
It‘s interesting that there are professors known all over the world and yet they don‘t give you the feeling they are something more. They come to your presentation, take interest in your problem at the seminar and try to help you.
There is a kind of natural stress. When you see that the colleague over there published an article in Science, the other one went to a conference and still you haven‘t created anything, you will not feel good here. We have people full of drive to grow.
Since the beginning I have been following a principle – I want to help to educate people in a way that their market value keeps growing. So that they can keep their freedom and leave anytime they want in search of something better.
We choose our projects, want the best of them
We really enjoy our connection to industry. It’s one of the cornerstones of our centre. We think through every cooperation carefully and we make our choices. We are not interested in projects which would put us into a position of a mere supplier of a finished solution. That wouldn’t move us anywhere. We mainly choose long-term projects with companies interested in what problems they will be solving in their fields in the next 10 or 20 years. Our joint lab with Avast where we try to model a situation when malware is written by an AI is one example of that.
This kind of cooperation enables us to delve into problems for a long time, understand it thoroughly, write professional articles on them and, in that manner, make us heard. It makes easier connecting with other experts from the whole world and cooperating with the best people in a particular field.
You have freedom. It is an innovative place, open just like a start-up. People here are at all times driven by their internal motivation.
Academics can see further into the future and thus can help solve tomorrow‘s problems of any industry. Nowadays we exclusively work with companies that want to see the unseen, that are interested in what the next 10 or 20 years will bring.
Cooperating with someone at the lab makes me the happiest. We meet and you can always see our progress. You can see the bee hive working and moving further ahead.
Being surrounded by people who always work vigorously makes you want to join them. It‘s a drive coming naturally from inside you. I think what connects us all is the effort to do things with vigour, to do more.
Our foundations consist of three cornerstones – education, research and projects, those are the three things we all do. You need to be disciplined and have organizational skills so that you can harmonize your teaching and researching schedule without slowly burning out. It can be tough, however, the academic environment gives you the opportunity to work freely and on your schedule. Your working hours are up to you. We want be checking your every move or control you. The most important thing is to deliver on your promises to your colleagues and fulfill your obligations.
Under the university‘s wing
We are a part of our department which is a part of the faculty which is, in turn, a part of the whole university. We are not a stand-alone entity. Sometimes it can keep our hands tied, we need to work according to procedures we ourselves would make simpler. But it is a fact we have got used to. At the other hand, this synergy provides us with great power and possibilities. The CTU opens the door to new opportunities and resources we, as a small company, would never achieve alone. We have foundations to build on. And so, even though it can be difficult, it is priceless to be able to get support from such a strong partner.
Interview with the director and co-founder of AIC, Michal Pěchouček
We want to see around corners
How does AIC work today? How do you think about your job?
I really enjoy the punk-like approach to how we function – we are extremely open-minded to the world around us. We love to cooperate on researches from various fields. Our job needs to make an impact in three ways.
Excellent scientific work other scientists can further build on – the success factor is really the fact when other scientists use our results to further work on them. Especially if they are better than us.
We want our work to make an impact on society as well – our ideas, projects, algorithms, results and outcomes should make a positive impact on society.
And last but not least, the application impact – our results help our colleagues and other people with setting up start-ups or companies that will surely find their customers.
When and why was AIC founded?
AIC came into existence around the year 2000 as a part of the Faculty of Cybernetics. Its foundations were built according to the postgraduate students‘ plans. We were interested in AI and especially in its development in various areas in the next 20 years.
In what ways do you differ from other similar centres in the world?
At the beginning we chose three topics – machine l earning, game theory and automated planning, and four areas for application – cybersecurity, autonomous transport, robotics and industry (increasing its efficiency)
The truth is, we have always believed that machine learning or AI in itself will not save the world. The world is more colourful, interdisciplinary. We need to do more research and focus on it. Apart from AI and machine learning, we have always focused on other topics as well. This makes us interesting and relevant even today when it is really difficult to achieve success in these fields. Even the founders of machine learning are nowadays speaking of the need to go back, to do things differently.
You say you are open to the world outside. What does it mean? Who do you currently cooperate with?
It‘s someone else in each of your research areas. It is a broad spectrum of subjects – small companies, non-profits, foreign grant agencies or universities. Trying to describe it, I‘d say we try to choose such subjects that ‘want to see around corners.‘ Subjects interested in what is going to be happening in 10 or 20 years time and try to think about the problems we might be facing then.
That is why we cooperate with Avast, for example. We have a top-class workplace where we work together with people from Avast who are great at understanding malware and users. Avast is interested in what way malware will be developing under AI and we try to help them create models of that.
Together with Skoda we work on a very practical project – we create autonomous vehicle in our laboratory which are capable of working in a dynamic environment where the weather changes and where many people are present at all times.
You have been leading AIC for several years. What is specific about the way it works and its people?
Since the beginning I have been following a principle – I want to help to educate people in a way that their market value keeps growing. So that they can keep their freedom and leave anytime they want in search of something better. It is absolutely natural to leave places and as their mentor I want to support them in their freedom.
During the existence of AIC 5 successful start-ups were already launched. Some people went for work there but stayed in touch with us. Others kept a part-time job in AIC so they keep coming back, sharing new things they have learned. Some people even sold their start-ups and came back to work with AIC. It is a priceless contribution both for the centre and for our students.
Another aspect differentiating us from other academic workplaces is the way we from our PhD studies. We believe the purpose of PhD studies is to train students‘ abilities to see the depths of problems and thus create true science. So we try to create such conditions for our students so that they don‘t have to work anywhere else and can exclusively focus on research.
What is today the biggest challenge ahead of people working in the field of AI?
It is definitely the effort to make AI understandable. We want to keep our ability to create procedures which would be as effective as today and which the AI would, at the same time, be able to explain to us. To explain why it chose this solution and not a different one.
Our major focus in this field is security – we want to be able to monitor and predict algorithms' decisions, to detect something like "machine learning bias, etc. Those are the challenges ahead of us.
AIC FEE CTU in Prague
You can find us in the CTU building complex at Karlovo náměstí. We combine both traditional and modern technologies and reconstructed modern space with retro-feeling offices that preserve the authentic spirit of the university. And our view of Prague's Hradčany from the building's top floors? That's just icing on the cake for you.
In our team, it is specifically and strongly about cooperation. This is not the place to be isolated. We make an effort to get to know each other and share our work, ideas and other things.
Opportunities at Artificial Intelligence Center FEE CTU
Artificial Intelligence Center FEE CTU
Ph.D. in Structured Graphical Models (ML for Public Health)
Artificial Intelligence Center FEE CTU
Ph.D. in Mathematical Optimization and Control (Fairness in AI)
Artificial Intelligence Center FEE CTU
PostDoc: Integer programming in gas pipeline operations