The Chinese government wants to lead the world in 2030 through artificial intelligence (AI) and trains the entire population from primary school. Spain is not so ambitious: experts demand a transversal subject in computational thinking at school, universities try to offer degrees in AI in the shortest possible time and many university graduates opt for a master’s degree with guaranteed employability. The Fundación La Caixa is very aware of this enormous interest in this technological field, which this Wednesday awarded 100 scholarships to study a postgraduate course abroad.
The four brilliant twenty-something protagonists of this report, La Caixa Foundation scholarship holders, have a CV on a par with very few and a contagious illusion. They agree on almost everything: they graduated from a public university and are proud of their training, but in Spain they do not find the ideal ecosystem to specialize in artificial intelligence, although they recognize the excellence of many researchers. In the medium-long term they intend to return to their country so that all the investment made in them is reversed, well aware that they can greatly improve the lives of citizens through the use of technology.
The Artificial Intelligence degree was launched in Spain in the 2020-2021 academic year and is inaugurated in several new universities each year, while the master’s degrees are more focused on the use of tools than on their creation, the Achilles heel of the country. many are postgraduate degrees in computer engineering or data science with subjects in artificial intelligence. Some experts doubt that it is a career, such as the telecommunications engineer Nuria Oliver, an expert in human-computer interaction: “I am more of a general education that teaches you the bases on which to build specializations; because more specific training can become obsolete”. The Spanish industry will need in three years more than 90,000 professional experts in this field, according to the Spanish Association of Artificial Intelligence for Industry, IndesIA, made up of eight large companies
Ricardo Buitrago (Toledo, 25 years old) travels to Pennsylvania this August to study a master’s degree in machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University. There is no other like it in Europe. “It gives you all the mathematical foundation of artificial intelligence, which is essential to develop tools that do not bring us unexpected results or do things that we cannot control,” explains Buitrago, with a double degree in Mathematics and Physics from the Complutense de Madrid, the degree with the highest access grade in Spain. “The danger is that there are things that apparently work, but we don’t know why, or if they can stop working if we change the context.” The postgraduate course (80,000 dollars) ―to which more than 1,500 people applied for 40 places― and the stay will cost more than 130,000 dollars that he would not have been able to afford.
Buitrago’s intention is to “develop responsible tools to improve people’s lives.” Two years ago he started working in banking and investment while considering “where he could contribute more to society”. He is self taught. “On the internet there are many resources. You have to be careful, because you see things easily and quickly, but you don’t understand the fundamentals. Luckily, it is openly researched and it is very easy to access even the latest research without paying.”
Joel Romero (Vilanova i la Geltrú, Barcelona, 22 years old), who has been studying a master’s degree in artificial intelligence and machine learning at Imperial College since last October, reports on this shared research. “In London you have the best environment, the companies that are creating the latest in the market have a direct collaboration with the university. Every two weeks they came to give us a talk from DeepMind, one of the two most important artificial intelligence companies in the world. In these rounds they invited a professor of mine from Pompeu Fabra University, Gustavo Deco”, this graduate in Biomedical Engineering proudly recounts. “Then there’s sushi and you talk to the authors.”
The master’s degree -which is actually a stay in a laboratory- costs 50,000 euros. “More living, the visa… For my family and my background, completely exorbitant. Most of my friends there are not on scholarships. There is a bias there.” Romero has spent “five years working on how to use artificial intelligence to treat complex diseases, such as cancer, sepsis or cardiovascular diseases.” His purpose has led him at the age of 22 to have already made stays at MIT and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. In the long run, he will return and maintain his collaboration with Pompeu Fabra and Hospital del Mar.
Celia Rubio (Madrid, 24 years old), graduated in Mathematics and Computer Engineering from the Complutense, is studying a master’s degree in Advanced Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Strathclyde Glasgow, which focuses on the theoretical parts of AI. When she opted for this field she knew she was going to break out, but she never imagined how fast. “The tools have been in the making for a long time, but this year they have been opened to the public who can use them. It is no longer just a thing for researchers or developers in companies.” Her degree costs 20,000 euros and living in Scotland is very expensive. Having a scholarship allows her to focus on her studies and not have a part-time job like other Spaniards she knows in Glasgow. Her next destination is the University of Saarland, in Germany, where she will do her doctorate.
The human resources company Randstad Research and the San Pablo CEU University Foundation have released an employability report that labels artificial intelligence and machine learning in red-yellow risk due to its imbalance between supply and demand and recalls the “limited recent growth of computer science graduates”. Rubio is clear about it: “It’s easy to find a job, but not the one you like. The technological world is very messy, very busy, and you will not find the job of your whole life as before, but the job for a few years”.
Alba Carballo (23 years old) from Seville is studying a postgraduate degree in Statistics at the Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich (ETH). “The master’s degree has a mathematical trunk, which is the basis of everything, and artificial intelligence subjects. I have taken those that apply to medicine ”, she recounts. In addition, she is a graduate in Mathematics and Statistics from the University of Seville, she does an internship in a hospital with intensive care data, “to develop strategies with which to act very quickly when unexpected things arise.” Before, at the National Center for Biotechnology, in Madrid, she worked on simulations to develop brain rehabilitation strategies.
Compared to his peers, Carballo’s master’s degree is very cheap, 800 Swiss francs per semester (826 euros), but living in Zurich is prohibitively expensive. He will soon start his master’s thesis in an ETH group. Probably, in strategies against cancer. “It is good that we go abroad to learn, but also that we return it, because I have trained in Spain.”
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