Walking through old Granada is like taking a walk between yesterday and tomorrow. The narrow and irrégules streets, the Arab teahouses and the imposing view of the Alhambra warn of its rich and millenary history; the young voices heard everywhere, in different languages and with dozens of regional nuances, point to the future. The Nasrid city, a melting pot of cultures since the Middle Ages, is today one of the main university cities of Spain and the institution that welcomes these students, the University of Granada (UGR), a leading research center in computer science and artificial intelligence (AI).
This is stated by various international academic rankings, such as the 2019 Shanghai Jiao Tang University, which places the UGR among the one hundred best universities in the world in computer engineering. Or the one of Times Higher Education, which in 2017 positioned the Nasrid as the fifth institution in the world for impact of citations on artificial intelligence investigations, a list headed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But how has the UGR, located far from the main technological poles of Spain and in a region with an economy closely linked to tourism, managed to rub shoulders with the world’s leading institutions in computer science and artificial intelligence? The explanation must be sought before the digital boom, when computer science was much more theoretical than practical.
«The creators of the Department of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, which was born in the eighties, raised high-impact research as a fundamental element. This culture of research made it possible to attract more projects, which made it possible to hire more professors and for us to grow ”, explains Francisco Herrera, professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at the UGR.
Thus, the department focused on research of international relevance and its publication in prestigious scientific journals. with the aim of attracting more financing of public institutions, since, being more theoretical at that time, there was not as much private investment for new projects as today. Thanks to this policy, in addition, little by little they needed more researchers and incorporated doctoral students – academics who prepare their doctoral thesis – who contributed with their studies to increase publications.
It’s a wheel. If you get more posts and meet the goals, you are more competitive when it comes to obtaining national and international funding projects and scholarships. With that, you can have more PhD candidates doing their research with you. And after several decades like this, this dynamic stimulates the area and strengthens the department “, says Jorge Casillas, professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at the UGR.
“That is why we have many publications and we appear so well positioned. Classements in those, in addition, citations of our studies by other researchers are highly taken into account, and it is true that the department has worked on lines that have led to many citations “, adds Herrera, who is one of the most cited authors at the University of Granada.
In this way, the department in which Herrera and Casillas work has been able to go from having 16 teachers at the end of the eighties to having more than 70 today. Although the focus on research has not been the only factor explaining this growth, It has also been of paramount importance that computing has become a cross-disciplinary discipline over the years to many university careers, which has caused a greater need for teachers of the subject.
«The staff is regulated above all by the teaching activity, although what ends up looking more is research. But funding is hardly available for a staff that is only researcher”, Points out Casillas.
From theory to application
Scientific publications and the development of informatics therefore allowed the department to grow during its first decades of life. Later, the explosion of artificial intelligence put into practice in many areas of our day to day focused on these researchers and allowed them to apply many of their theoretical investigations, both in public and private projects.
“As it is a technology that can be applied in all fields of society, the department evolved and participated more and more in regional, national and European projects, many of them with companies, while maintaining research. Now more than 50% of the financing that reaches the department by projects comes from companies»Herrera explains.
In this way, the consolidation of the department in the theoretical framework during the nineties has allowed that, after the rise of AI, there attracted financing from companies to develop projects, which makes it possible to hire even more researchers and have their publications added to the account of the University of Granada.
«We have been fortunate to have two generations of very brilliant researchers who, at the same time, worked hard. Also, with publications that have aroused the interest of many scientists who have cited them in theirs, ”says Casillas.
Granada exports AI talent
The prominent role that these classes give to researchers at the University of Granada in a field that, today, has so many practical applications has led to many companies are interested in them. In Spain, through projects, and from the United States with offers to “sign them”.
«Both some colleagues like me We have received offers to go abroad, from companies and institutions. And there have been colleagues who have made the leap. In Spain that is less common. As far as I remember, we have several doctors trained with us working in companies in Germany and England ”, explains Herrera.
Casillas adds that in our country the usual thing is to work for projects: “They buy the idea, but not the one who has it. They don’t realize here that if they invested in a more stable way, they could have long-term solutions. Although, as with everything, there were some exceptions. But in the US the dynamics are that, big technology companies like Apple or Google are increasingly joining universities.
In the academic section, there are doctors trained at the UGR distributed by the universities of Nottingham, Ghent, Leicester, Paris and several in Sweden. “Really training in Spain is very good, and is highly valued abroad. And in the case of Granada, the prestige that these classes give us makes us even more attractive for them to want to attract our students, ”says Herrera.
Technological development in Andalusia
Since the rise of the practical application of artificial intelligence, the projects with companies that have been taken over by the Department of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence of the UGR have not increased any more. Among the companies they currently work with are Repsol, Indra, Telefónica, Puleva, Heineken or Sherpa.
“Our jobs apply to many things. We work with health projects, such as the behavior of the brain under certain stress conditions or the stratification of the risk of chronic diseases in the population, in security, to detect weapons through images in real time, or energy efficiency. And it is beginning to be applied in many other disciplines such as sports, social sciences or law. There are many applications and we have come a long way, a regret that we are in an area with a low industrial fabric, which is our great handicap ”, laments Casillas.
And the fact is that, despite the fact that they work with more and more companies, the projects that the UGR has had with the private sector so far have come, for the most part, from companies from other parts of Spain or Europe. Even if In recent years things have changed thanks to the fact that the Andalusian technology sector is experiencing remarkable growth, according to data from the Andalusian Institute of Statistics and Cartography.
Casillas explains that in Granada there were several examples of SMEs that have been created from research carried out by the UGR, while Herrera points out that Andalusia is betting more and more on the technology sector and many initiatives are being taken in this regard.
«In our field, we have recently created the Andalusian Center for Digital Innovation in Data Science and Computational Intelligence, with several universities in the community, participation of the Board and Andalusian companies or companies based in the region related to artificial intelligence. With the we want to create an ecosystem around the socio-economic fabric of AI in Andalusia»Herrera explains.