Ma­chine Learn­ing

Zurich is qui­etly be­com­ing a world leader in ro­bot­ics, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and cog­ni­tive com­put­ing

Business Traveler (USA) - - INSIDE - By Jenny Southan

There is some­thing un­canny about the way this dog­like ro­bot moves – its skele­tal frame whirs loudly as it marches on the spot, then moves side to side, and around in a cir­cle in a strange dance. Built by a team in the Ro­botic Sys­tems Lab at the Swiss Fed­eral In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (ETH Zurich), as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor Marco Hut­ter says the “ANY­mal”is his new­est cre­ation.

Not only can it run but climb, crouch and jump.“We wanted to make some­thing that was op­ti­mal from a ro­bot­ics point of view,” he says.“We put springs in all the joints so we can use it in all sorts of en­vi­ron­ments.”As part of a pi­lot project, the ANY­mal has been put to work on off­shore oil and gas plat­forms where it can go about in­spec­tion tasks (of­ten dan­ger­ous for hu­mans) com­pletely au­tonomously thanks to laser sen­sors and cam­eras.

I ask how it com­pares with the ro­bot that was sent to Mars.“In gen­eral, space tech­nol­ogy is very old,”says Hut­ter, walk­ing me down the cor­ri­dor and point­ing to a dusty old unit on cater­pil­lar tracks.“This was part of a study we were do­ing for the Euro­pean Space Agency. But wheels are bor­ing – legs are the fu­ture.”

In­tel­li­gence Hub

Founded in 1855, the ETH is Switzer­land’s an­swer to MIT. Ranked one of the best univer­si­ties in the world, more than 20 No­bel Prizes have been awarded to its alumni over the years, in­clud­ing Al­bert Ein­stein in 1921. To­day it has 20,000 stu­dents and an an­nual bud­get of Sfr 1.7 bil­lion ($1.7 bil­lion), funded by tax­pay­ers.“That is part of the rea­son the ETH is the best,”says pro­fes­sor Peter Seitz, a “sherpa”from its In­no­va­tion and En­trepreneur­ship Lab (ieLab).

In a ware­house on the Sci­ence City cam­pus, a short drive north­west of the old town, ar­chi­tects are us­ing giant me­chan­i­cal arms to ex­plore new con­struc­tion tech­niques that em­ploy noth­ing more than loops of yarn and peb­bles, for ex­am­ple, or 3D printed con­crete. Alek­san­dra Anna Apoli­narska, an ar­chi­tect in the Gra­mazio Kohler Re­search Lab at the ETH Zurich, says the days of mass pro­duc­tion are be­hind us.“We think it is time for mass cus­tomiza­tion.”

From self-driv­ing cars to aug­mented re­al­ity, the ETH is forging a new to­mor­row in myr­iad ways. And with the help of ieLab, Seitz’s stu­dents have the op­por­tu­nity to take ideas from the re­search stage to mar­ket. Be­tween 1996 and 2016, 355 spin-off com­pa­nies have been founded at the ETH, a num­ber of which have been in the field of ro­bot­ics.

It’s no won­der that Chris An­der­son, CEO of 3D Ro­bot­ics and for­mer ed­i­tor-in-chief of Wired, has dubbed Zurich“the Sil­i­con Val­ley of Ro­bot­ics.”

Tal­ent Con­test

In 2016, Switzer­land was ranked first in Cor­nell Univer­sity’s Global In­no­va­tion In­dex, and Zurich came sec­ond in the Mercer Qual­ity of Liv­ing sur­vey, sig­nif­i­cantly ahead of San Fran­cisco (28th po­si­tion).

Un­sur­pris­ingly, over the decades, the ETH has pro­vided a com­pelling rea­son for big com­pa­nies to lo­cate them­selves in pretty lit­tle Zurich, a city of just 380,000 peo­ple that has grown into an in­ter­na­tional hub for bank­ing, fi­nance and in­no­va­tion. The renowned IBM Re­search Lab was the com­pany’s first out­side the US when it opened here in 1956.

Chris Sci­acca, IBM Re­search’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager for EMEA, says,“We chose Switzer­land be­cause of the ac­cess to tal­ent and skills that the country af­fords us. The stan­dard of liv­ing is very good and the gov­ern­ment is fan­tas­tic at sup­port­ing sci­ence and in­no­va­tion with grants. It is very sta­ble, demo­cratic and open. All this means you can at­tract the best and the bright­est.”

From his pocket, Sci­acca pulls a gold medal­lion. It’s one of IBM Zurich’s four No­bel Prizes, two of which were won in the mid 1980s for the in­ven­tion of high tem­per­a­ture su­per­con­duc­tiv­ity and the nanoscale mi­cro­scope.“Up un­til this you re­ally couldn’t see atoms and mol­e­cules with good res­o­lu­tion.You can re­ally point to the 30-year his­tory of nan­otech­nol­ogy in Switzer­land to this in­ven­tion,”he says.

in­de­pen­dent Think­ing

The level of in­no­va­tion go­ing on at IBM is mind-blow­ing – in 2016, its in­ven­tors were awarded a record 8,088 patents in the US alone, more than any other com­pany (Sam­sung was in sec­ond place with 5,518 and Canon third with 3,665). In­ter­est­ingly, more than 2,700 patents were re­lated to ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ma­chine learn­ing

and cloud com­put­ing. In be­tween fork­fuls of risotto, Alessan­dro Cu­ri­oni, IBM fel­low, vice-pres­i­dent Europe and di­rec­tor of IBM Re­search Zurich, gives me a crash course in cog­ni­tive com­put­ing.

“The way we in­ter­act with com­put­ers is chang­ing,”he ex­plains. “First it was tab­u­lar com­put­ing, then the pro­gram­ming era, now it is nat­u­ral lan­guage. The abil­ity to an­a­lyze un­struc­tured data [such as im­ages and sounds] will ac­cel­er­ate by an or­der of mag­ni­tude the re­search and devel­op­ment in ev­ery field, in­clud­ing avi­a­tion and space travel.”

The new Cog­ni­tive era be­gan in 2011, when IBM’s Wat­son su­per­com­puter won the TV quiz show Jeop­ardy. Eleni Pratsini, di­rec­tor of cog­ni­tive IoT so­lu­tions at IBM Re­search, says:“One of the rules of the game was that Wat­son was not con­nected to the In­ter­net so sci­en­tists had to feed it hun­dreds of books and teach it to rea­son like a hu­man, to un­der­stand rid­dles, puns and sub­tle con­no­ta­tions.”

The breadth of this hu­man-like AI, which can make as­so­ci­a­tions and learn, has since been ex­panded – now you can lo­gon to ibm. com/wat­son/de­vel­op­er­cloud and ac­cess more than 60 ver­sions of Wat­son in the form of in­di­vid­ual APIs cre­ated for spe­cific tasks such as im­age recog­ni­tion and per­son­al­ity in­sight. Want to build a chat bot? Down­load the Con­ver­sa­tion API and get to work. Hil­ton is al­ready us­ing AI to power Con­nie, its ro­botic concierge in Vir­ginia.

To­mor­row's World

Come Satur­day, I take a trip to the pub­lic Ther­mal­bad and Spa. Down in the vaults of this for­mer brew­ery, lo­cals soak in giant re­pur­posed wooden vats. At the same time, in one of the build­ings across the way, a solo em­ployee pounds away in a gym at the oth­er­wise peace­ful Google cam­pus.

Since 2004, Zurich has been the home of Google’s largest engi­neer­ing base out­side the US (the big­gest is Moun­tain View in Cal­i­for­nia and the sec­ond-largest NewYork City). Engi­neer­ing di­rec­tor Em­manuel Mo­genet heads up the com­pany’s new Euro­pean Re­search Lab, which was set up last year on the ex­ist­ing of­fice cam­pus.

Op­er­at­ing in par­al­lel to IBM (not col­lab­o­rat­ing but not com­pet­ing), Google has cho­sen the Swiss city to host its first lab out­side the US ded­i­cated to AI, com­puter per­cep­tion and ma­chine learn­ing (with the ex­cep­tion of Deep Mind in Lon­don, an AI startup that was ac­quired by Google in 2014). Why? Be­cause the ETH “pro­duces the best com­puter sci­en­tists in Europe,”says Mo­genet.

To make sure they not only at­tract but re­tain them, the com­pany goes out of its way to pro­vide not just gyms and free food, but fan­tasy work en­vi­ron­ments com­plete with fire­man’s poles and slides, and egg-shaped pri­vacy pods.“Our ba­sic phi­los­o­phy is that you are most pro­duc­tive when you are en­joy­ing your­self,”Mo­genet says.“It is ex­tremely in­for­mal – there are a lot of peo­ple who wear slip­pers at the of­fice and bring their dog in.”

At the mo­ment, there are 2,000 peo­ple rep­re­sent­ing 75 na­tion­al­i­ties work­ing here, but this num­ber is set to rise to 5,000 “Zooglers”with the open­ing of its new of­fices in Europaallee, by Zurich Haupt­bahn­hof sta­tion. An­dreas Meyer, CEO of Swiss Fed­eral Rail­ways, says:“The dis­trict around the main sta­tion in Zurich will be a hotspot where in­no­va­tive ser­vices are de­vel­oped and tested, and the fu­ture is sig­nif­i­cantly shaped.”

For ex­am­ple, nearby is the Technopark, a half-mil­lion-square­foot site that is home to 300 start-ups all hop­ing to be­come a suc­cess story. Last year, Face­book bought lo­cal com­puter vi­sion ven­ture Zurich Eye, which was founded by three mem­bers of the Univer­sity of Zurich’s Ro­bot­ics and Per­cep­tion group. Al­though the so­cial net­work has its main Swiss of­fice in Geneva, it is open­ing a small base for its Ocu­lus vir­tual re­al­ity sub­sidiary here. If you’re smart, you’ll get in on the ac­tion too.

The au­ton­o­mous ro­bot ETH Zurich’s new Arch Tech Lab

Google cam­pus; 3D print­ing at the Arch Tech Lab; rooftop restau­rant at the Swiss Fed­eral In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (ETH) Mark­t­gasse ho­tel; Space suite at the Kameha Grand

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