‘We have to seize this opportunity’

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ETH President Lino Guzzella sees ETH as a designer of Switzerland’s digita
ETH President Lino Guzzella sees ETH as a designer of Switzerland’s digital future. (Image: ETH Zurich)
Die Digitalisierung verändert grundlegend immer mehr Lebensbereiche. Für ETH-Präsident Lino Guzzella ist klar: Dieser Wandel ist für die Schweiz eine grosse Chance, denn sie hat ideale Voraussetzungen, eine leistungsfähige Digitalindustrie aufzubauen.

ETH News: Professor Guzzella, everyone is talking about digitalisation at the moment. The topic appears in countless media reports, events and initiatives. Are we really facing a radical upheaval - or is this just a fashionable trend?
Lino Guzzella: It’s true that many people are talking about this subject. That’s understandable, as we are experiencing a development that will change our lives profoundly.

So what exactly is digitalisation?
The word ‘digitalisation’ is somewhat misleading because digitalisation actually began much earlier, in the 1960s, when we began to replace the analog control devices for machines by digital computers. The second important step was to link these digital computers, in what was initially an expensive and complex process. However, over the years, this technology has developed to such an extent that now data is available anywhere, at any speed and at very low cost. This data is then distilled into information and increasingly also into insights, becoming more and more valuable in the process. These developments create a new quality of technological change, which can also be referred to as the ‘digital transformation.’

What does that mean exactly?
No one knows what the digital world of the future will look like. The assumption is that it is a fertile biotope that will become more valuable with each new species living in it. An empty room, the need to travel and the internet: if these three seemingly unrelated ingredients come together, you suddenly have a new business model - and that, by the way, without any state funding.

And where does ETH intend to position itself in this biotope?
ETH must position itself where its strengths lie - and that is exactly what we intend to do. Our first strength is mathematics: learning systems, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems are inconceivable without a solid mathematical foundation. Our second strength is algorithmic thinking and extensive experience in the development of software systems. The third element is our expertise in hardware development and engineering.

Switzerland already provides an inspirational environment for IT. What role does ETH play in this environment?
We always play the same role: ETH connects Switzerland with the world, brings in new knowledge and makes it available to society and the business world. To do so, we must first participate in leading research networks - and we can do that only if we belong to the exclusive club of the world’s best universities. Second, we must pass on our knowledge quickly - through the education we provide to students, through partnerships with companies, and by founding new companies.

So ETH sees itself as an active driving force?
We are not only a driving force - we are also helping to shape Switzerland’s digital future. Our country has an opportunity to build a competitive information technology industry that could become as important as the pharmaceutical industry is today. We should definitely seize this opportunity.

With the founding of the Swiss Data Science Center in February in partnership with EPFL, ETH has recently taken a step in the right direction.
Yes, and we could also talk about other initiatives, such as the Max Planck ETH Center for Learning Systems. The key thing is the people: we need more specialists who are active in this field. This is why we will launch a new Master’s programme in data science this autumn.

Large volumes of data now play a key role in many areas of research. What does this development mean for science?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Some scientists are convinced that with enough data and effective algorithms, one can find out what holds the world together at the most fundamental level. The classic scientific triad - hypothesis, experiment, analysis - would thus be overcome. It’s true that collecting and analysing data can lead to new insights, but ultimately we need researchers who recognise the underlying fundamental connections. Data science provides us with better empirical tools, which in turn help us to improve our theories.

Digitalisation is a source of anxiety for many people. Can you understand why?
I can certainly understand why. Change often leads to anxiety. The point is that we can’t choose whether to join the digital transformation or not. We can only choose whether to see it as an opportunity or to stand on the sidelines - which is guaranteed to end in failure.

What is your response to people who are anxious?
We have to show them the exciting opportunities and explain that from a historical perspective we have always advanced when powerful new technologies were introduced. Two hundred years ago, 95% of people in Switzerland worked in agriculture. Today, that figure is just 3%. However trite it may sound, we have to tackle change with enthusiasm, curiosity and a positive attitude. Only then does it become an opportunity. This recipe has worked in the past, and there is a strong probability that it will work in the future too.

If you think about the interference in the run-up to the French elections or the recent cyber-attacks, the question nevertheless arises: does digitalisation pose a threat to our liberal society?
Obviously, such developments must be monitored closely. Democracy is under pressure at the moment. That’s why we need informed, enlightened people who are able to question information critically.

Isn’t there also a need for better technical safeguards?
A society must always protect itself against threats. Zurich used to have a city wall made of bricks, but today we need IT walls like the ones we have been building at ETH’s Zurich Information Security & Privacy Center (ZISC) since 2003.

Researchers at ZISC have proposed creating a new foundation for the internet. Is that realistic?
This project represents a huge opportunity. The foundations of the internet were developed under very different circumstances than those prevailing today. Actually, it’s a wonder that this structure still works so well. The project known as SCION (Scalability, Control and Isolation on Next-Generation Networks) now allows secure data transfer. Thanks to ETH, Switzerland could become the first country with a secure internet - and this would open the doors for many exciting applications.

Safety in cyberspace - the Cyber Risks Summit

New information and communication technology (ICT) not only offers huge opportunities; it also involves risks. To counter these risks, it is important to understand the theoretical foundations of information security. There is also a need for practical knowledge of how to handle security threats. At the Cyber Risks Summit, the keynote speakers will report on new research findings. In the second part of the summit, a panel discussion will examine the question of how Switzerland can become the first ‘internet-secure country’.

Monday, 26 June 2017, 2.15’8.30 p.m.

ETH Main Building, Auditorium Maximum

Programme and registration at: https://zisc.ethz.ch/even­ts/summit/