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"Swiss firms could reap benefits from the fourth industrial revolution"

The new digital wave could open many doors for Swiss companies. The president of EPFL explains.

A true expert in the current climate of the Swiss economy, the head of EPFL, Marting Vetterli, sees great opportunities in digital innovation, particularly artificial intelligence. The following is an interview with him.

American and Asian firms dominate the digital sector, and particularly artificial intelligence. Switzerland is lagging behind. Why is this?

We are paying for our shortcomings in the past. Like in the rest of Europe, Switzerland undertook its digital transformation far too late. In the United States, computer science departments boasting leading researchers have been around since the 1960s. In Switzerland, we waited until the 1980s for small departments to see the light of day. We are now trying to make up for lost time. But there is a fair amount of catching up to be done.

Do you think the solution lies in schools?

Schools are part of the solution, but so are the environment and framework conditions for start-ups. There is much need for an eco-system, and it is currently in the process of being set up. I am optimistic.

How many students take classes in this field at EPFL?

More than 400 students are enrolled in the machine learning course (editor’s note: automatic learning, one of the fields of study in artificial intelligence). It is one of the biggest courses ever given at EPFL. This autumn, we also launched our first master’s programme in data science, which already has 65 students.

In which sectors of activity is there a distinct lack of experts, and in which fields are more students needed?

Data science, cybersecurity and fintech (editor’s note: financial technologies) are disciplines that touch on various domains. The need is not limited to hard-line IT, but also covers quantitative methods that can be applied to different areas of industry and the economy. Students in these kinds of fields find work before even finishing their degrees. I have met a large number of people from industry and the need for digitalisation seems to be widespread.

What are the most promising prospects?

Switzerland can play a significant role if it manages to combine the fourth industrial revolution with the sectors in which its companies have historically been very successful, such as complex systems, medtech and the pharmaceutical industry. After all, the digital transformation has also affected these fields.
There are also significant opportunities in the human-machine interface and in personalised health. This is evident in firms such as Mindmaze (editor’s note: the only “unicorn” in Switzerland, which combines virtual reality, neuroscience and machine learning) and Sophia Genetics (editor’s note: the Lausanne-based medical company focused on data has raised 60 million Swiss francs since it was created in 2011). Large groups such as Google are rather out of their depth when it comes to pure software design. This is where Swiss firms can step in.