The future of ICT in Poland – a panel discussion hosted by IDEAS NCBR
On October 27th, 2022 IDEAS NCBR hosted a panel discussion dedicated to ICT as both a field of science and the profession. The debate was a part of ‘Horizon of Innovations’ conference organised in Warsaw by the National Centre for Research and Development. During the discussion titled ‘Informatics 4.0: Innovator, craftsman or entrepreneur?’ Krystyna Rappe-Niemirska, a representative of IDEAS and a moderator spoke with invited experts:
– Dariusz Łukaszewski, Ph.D. Eng., Deputy Manager of the Section in the Expert Management Department at the National Centre for Research and Development;
– Professor Ewa Szczurek, Professor at the Faculty of Mathematics, Informatics and Mechanics, University of Warsaw;
– Professor Żaneta Chadaj-Świderska, Ph.D. Eng., expert in biomedical and biological image analysis and assistant professor at the Warsaw University of Technology;
– Professor Piotr Sankowski, Ph.D., Professor at the University of Warsaw and also President of IDEAS NCBR.
The following is a transcript of the main debating points and conclusions.
Krystyna Rappe-Niemirska: What is your assessment of the current condition of Polish IT and its near future? How does this picture look from the perspective of the National Centre for Research and Development?
Dariusz Łukaszewski: We spend a total of 1.4 percent of GDP on research and development in Poland. This positions us in the tail of the European Union, well below the average. It is optimistic, however, that the trend is upward. Both in terms of public expenditure and investment by private companies. Companies see R&D as the future of business, a chance to gain new competitive advantages, and therefore to develop and expand.
It does not change the fact that the key element in supporting innovation in Poland is still programmes from European funds for the new economy, including for digitisation, distributed by e.g. National Centre for Research and Development (NCBR) or Polish Agency for Enterprise Development (PARP). This is how it should remain. Despite the spectre of recession, we cannot afford, as a state, to reduce funding for IT.
An approach that as I have observed developing rapidly in recent years, both globally and with us, is interdisciplinarity. At NCRD, we give entrepreneurs a lot of freedom to combine different fields of science. This can be seen in the variety of applications submitted to NCBR, which often combine different disciplines and approaches. Obviously, this is particularly common in the case of computer science, which, due to digitisation or the development of artificial intelligence, is present in almost every scientific discipline.
Piotr Sankowski. The prospects for the Polish IT are good, indeed a lot is happening. Yet it is also worth lasering in on the negative phenomena.
Disparities at the interface between industry and science are growing, both in terms of remuneration and in terms of expenditure and investment. The number of computer scientists being educated in Poland has not been increasing for 10 or even 20 years. This is despite the fact that the number of employees in ICT today is roughly double what it was a decade ago.
Today, we not only need IT professionals – scientists – but also innovators. People who are able not only to do good research, but also how to manage projects, collaborate with other sectors and disciplines, including social research, medicine or robotics. Any discipline can connect with or benefit from informatics – to the benefit of all involved. This is all the more natural because computer science, at its core, has a strong practical component, ideally combining theory with applications in society or the economy.
Science often does not keep up with what is happening in business. This is because in ICT the time from idea to testing to product launch is express. It is often, for example, a period of three months from idea to implementation. This is a phenomenon, and AI accelerates this phenomenon significantly, acting as an accelerator. Science must adapt to this pace, or it will be left behind.
The challenges that face the Polish IT are therefore serious. IDEAS NCBR was created to address some of them. We operate between academia and business, we are a catalyst for this cooperation in the field of AI.
Krystyna Rappe-Niemirska: What does scientific interdisciplinarity mean today, what does it look like in the practice of research work?
Ewa Szczurek: Interdisciplinary research is where we cannot get results without combining hitherto separate disciplines and approaches. Optimal research in this strand is one that pushes forward all the disciplines that make it up. In my work, this applies to biology, medicine and computer science, all of which share a common theme: genetics. In my lab, for example, when researching AI-generated new types of peptides, we need experts from a very broad range of fields – apart from computer science and biology, also chemistry and physics, among others.
A particular feature of the work of IT specialists in scientific projects is that they are needed in almost every project, regardless of the specifics, methodology or size of the project. This is because modern science produces huge amounts of data. There is often too much of it to be able to process it ‘manually’. Therefore, regardless of the discipline, programmes and algorithms are needed to analyse and interpret them in an automated manner.
The multiplicity of its strands manifests itself not only in the content, but also in the form of research collaboration. This requires researchers to know and use soft skills. We need to be able to understand, communicate and collaborate effectively. And this is true regardless of the university, curriculum, type of project or role in which we find ourselves.
Żaneta Chadaj-Świderska: I would like to emphasise the role of communication and collaboration. As scientists, we need to be able to talk to each other not only as representatives of specific disciplines, but as employees, managers or, ultimately, people who want to achieve something together.
Success in modern science means creating both new knowledge and tools. This is what is made possible today by so-called Data Science, a vast strand of research that is growing rapidly in both business and science. Statistical, mathematical analyses of large data sets allow better conclusions to be drawn and, consequently, processes to be improved.
It is also worth emphasising that today good science can be provided in Poland. We are witnessing a fascinating evolution! The opportunities are both in academia and in the private sector. There are more and more opportunities, from a macro perspective we can see that both investment and employment are increasing in the ICT research sector.
Krystyna Rappe- Niemirska: Referring to the title of the discussion, I would like to ask what type of IT specialists the Polish economy and science needs most today: artists or craftsmen?
Dariusz Łukaszewski: This is a sound distinction. In the short term, in Poland first of all we definitely need a huge number of craftsmen. People who will create code, analyse data and process it into concrete, useful solutions. We must remember that today almost anyone can be a computer scientist. Programming and coding languages are getting simpler, more intuitive and require less and less learning. And this is just the beginning. ICT tools are becoming more and more advanced, simple processes will soon be done with AI. Such solutions already exist, e.g. DeepCoder is a tool that transforms natural language into code. Although its functions are still limited, what is in prospect could be an amazing tool that in a few years’ time could allow repetitive tasks to be eliminated. This will make it possible to achieve results that are even more difficult to imagine today.
Advanced tools will make it even more important to have an original idea, a unique methodology or a correct and relevant research problem. Paradoxically, all this means that, in the long term, the role of artists, geniuses or innovators in computing will become increasingly prominent.
Ewa Szczurek: A computer scientist should be both a craftsman and an artist. I am a great optimist when it comes to the development of science. ‘This is the moment’ – The development of AI is so incredible that the time of the real innovators is just beginning. The whole world so far is now being changed by AI, almost every day. It is only the very beginning of this process, but there are already AI-generated paintings hanging in galleries in New York, and we are constantly accompanied by messages co-created by algorithms on the web. This is why we need IT specialists so much today. We need them so that we can use the new tools creatively and not allow ourselves to be manipulated, tricked or otherwise be influenced by them.
Żaneta Chadaj-Świderska: Today’s IT professionals not only need a solid coding or programming skillset, but also broad competencies and skills. Business skills, soft skills, an understanding of current issues and challenges. At the Faculty of Mathematics, Informatics and Mechanics of the University of Warsaw, we educate well in terms of science. On the other hand, we still lack the delivery of business skills, the competences of the future. I would also like students and scientists to develop an attitude of not giving up when failing, which is natural in any job.
Piotr Sankowski: I like to say that people who are not practising science today generally have outdated, 19th-century ideas about it. The time of the ‘genius misanthropes’ is long over. This is indeed how it used to be, e.g. in the case of Maria Skłodowska-Curie, who had to direct her research herself at every stage: from the idea to the – as it later turned out – deadly risky work in the laboratory. Today, this is no longer the case. Scientists work in huge, interdisciplinary and international teams. This is why we badly need extensive programmes that incorporate broad team competences.
At the same time, innovations need an ‘owner’ – not only someone who invents them, but also the person or persons who will apply to patent them, commercialise them and, finally, implement them. We should therefore talk about innovators and avoid talking about some undefined, anonymous ‘innovations’. After all, there are always people behind them. It is exactly such people that we educate at IDEAS NCBR.