Young Slovenian researcher in the company biggest names in maths and computer science
Ljubljana, 4 October - Slovenian Matjaž Leonardis was among the 200 selected researchers that took part in the 10th Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) in Germany, which brought together last week the brightest young minds with the biggest names in mathematics and computer science. He spent the week in the company of his peers and role models.
The forum is a conference where 200 mathematics and computer science researchers from around the world meet the recipients of prestigious awards such as the Abel Prize, the Turing Award, the ACM Prize in Computing, the Fields Medal, and the Nevanlinna Medal, now known as the Abacus Medal. The meeting takes place at Germany's oldest university, which is one of the oldest surviving universities in the world.
The 10th forum discussed the most topical and interesting issues in mathematics and computer science, and was primarily a networking event. The events took various forms - from speed networking to workshops and masterclasses with the laureates. Many of the laureates have attended the forum for several years running. Two Turing Award winners, Vinton Cerf and Robert E. Tarjan, have even been in attendance all ten years, saying that they get as much out of the young researchers as they give to them.
Slovenian researcher among the selected ones
Slovenian Matjaž Leonardis, who is working on his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, was one of this year's selected young researchers at the forum. As he told the STA, his research focuses on three areas - quantum computers, neural networks, and computability theory, which helps understand the potential of computers and how far we can push the boundaries of science.
As one of the 30 selected researchers at the forum, he presented his research in the form of a poster, which was on display to forum participants for the whole week. It focused on how computability theory can help understand the potential of machine learning, "how to understand what can be done with current machine learning methods and what we need to get closer to general intelligence", he said.
Forum useful in many ways
Leonardis found the forum useful "in a myriad of ways". Among other things, he met people from different fields of research, got a lot of useful advice from senior researchers and laureates, and heard many amazing stories from the past that shed light on the context of important achievements in mathematics and computer science.
He was fascinated by talks with Alexei A. Efros, Robert E. Tarjan, John E. Hopcroft, Stephen A. Cook and Avi Wigderson, among others. He also received a lot of advice, including that what makes a good professor and researcher is not how many projects they have worked on, but what they have learned from them, how they have applied their findings and how they have kept their curiosity.
Forum also attended by researchers from US, Italy, Chile ...
Among the participants was Jason Wu from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, US, who participated in a workshop with Vinton Cerf. "I'm working on user interface accessibility - how computers can be adapted for people who are deaf, so I wanted to talk to Vinton, who has had a hearing aid since he was young," Wu told the STA. Cerf told him that it is not just about connecting mobile phones or computers, but about how well we enable people with different abilities to use them.
Italian mathematician Carla Rizzo from the University of Palermo has attended the event for the second year running. She told the STA that after last year's event, she gained confidence, her research work improved a lot, and this year she found it easier to approach the laureates. "I realised that they are people like me, that they make mistakes, too. One of them told me that I shouldn't be afraid to be a bit foolish, which I think is great advice."
She believes that, although mathematics is gaining visibility in the general public, many stereotypes still persist. "Sometimes I don't want to say what I do because most people get scared. It has to do with the way maths is taught at school. It should be taught as a game, much more interactive, and not just repeating mathematical rules," said Rizzo.
The forum was also attended by Constanza Rojas-Molina, a Chilean mathematician working at France's CY Cergy Paris University, who has just been awarded a project by the EUTOPIA Alliance, in which she will also collaborate with Tomaž Prosen and Mark Žnidarič from the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics in Ljubljana. As she told the STA, she first attended the forum as a young researcher in 2016 and returned this year as a science communicator, presenting the forum's content to the general public through illustrations.
For her, mathematics is a language that is very visual. "When I hear about mathematics, I have to imagine the things they are talking about," she said. So she listens to scientists on the forum and tries to capture the essence of their ideas and personalities through sketches.
AI highlighted as one of the forum's themes
The forum opened on Monday, 25 September, with opening remarks and a lecture by last year's Turing Award winner Robert Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet technology, who spoke about connectivity. He recalled, through humorous anecdotes, the beginnings of the Internet and Ethernet and the applications that followed.
In addition to a number of topics related to the development of mathematics and computer science, a particular focus was on artificial intelligence (AI). Generative AI was discussed alongside how to ensure that AI benefits people. Ethics was also an important topic. While most agreed that we need more ethics in the educational system, there were different views on how to achieve this. According to Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf, ethics is not something you can learn, it is something you practice.
He believes we need some kind of "Internet licence" or training in the use of the Internet and applications such as bots and other AI tools. It will be difficult to avoid applications that have potentially harmful uses, which is why we need, above all, "intelligent use of AI".
The Heidelberg Laureate Forum was founded and funded by the Klaus Tschira Stiftung, a German foundation that promotes natural sciences, mathematics and computer science, with the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS) and Heidelberg University as its scientific partners.