Tereza Vítková
CzechTrade México
Expert Contributor

Czech Republic Strives to Be an AI Hub

By Tereza Vítková | Thu, 06/17/2021 - 15:01

Technical fields have a very long tradition in the Czech Republic: There are 19 STEMM-oriented universities with IT programs; more than 13,000 IT companies operate in this country of 10 million inhabitants; the sector employs almost 200,000 people (nearly 4 percent of the economically active population); and almost 30,000 students study at the local universities, which produce up to 6,000 graduates each year. Investment into the development and research provided by the universities, both private as well as state, is increasing and in 2019, it reached nearly US$5.5 million (2.5 percent of GDP). A significant part is provided by foreign companies that have their R&D department in the Czech Republic. Thanks to this ecosystem, some famous IT companies like Avast, GoodData, Y Soft, Socialbakers, Productboards or Kiwi.com were founded.

Birthplace of International AI Talent

More than 500 AI research workers (and hundreds of students) work in the Czech Republic, which makes it the country with the biggest concentration of these experts in the world, considering the population number. The capital, Prague, together with Brno host most of the IT companies that make up the AI powerhouses. These cities produce the highest number of AI university graduates every year. Among the most important universities in the AI field are Czech Technical University in Prague (CTU) and Brno University of Technology.

The AI Center (CTU), Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics (CIIRC CTU), the Institute of Computer Science (The Czech Academy of Sciences) or IT4Innovations (VSB-Technical University of Ostrava) are important AI centers. The National Supercomputing Center is part of the latter, where we find two super computers: Anselm (2013) and Salomon (2015), which are among the 67 most powerful supercomputers in the world). The Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics was founded in 2013. Among its important projects are safe human-robot interaction (logistics), automated urban parking and driving, artificial intelligence for large-scale computer-assisted reasoning, and robotic sorters. Among its most important successes in the AI field is the Alquist chatbot, which placed second twice and once came in third for Amazon’s Alexa Prize. Also, the name of the biggest Czech researcher Tomáš Mikolov, who is only 38 years old, is interconnected with CIIRC. Mikolov is a prime example of Czech IT experts. As a young and promising programmer, he left the country and worked his way up to become a recognized international AI expert. He had been working in Microsoft, Facebook and Google, where he contributed to the significant improvement of Google Translate. He created new models of neuron networks, which surpassed previous approaches to language formation.

The R&D center committee in the Czech Republic, which among other things is involved in AI research, cooperates with the local universities and the private sector. Among its most important partners are Google, NASA, FAA, IBM, Toyota, Foxconn, Siemens, P&G, Samsung, Red Hat, Amazon, Microsoft. In 2013, Facebook even chose the Czech Republic to be a place for the foundation of the AI research center Facebook AI Research (FAIR). Fifteen European universities take part in the exchange programs, including two CTU and Brno University of Technology.

Czech AI technologies are implemented by Kiwi.com (online flight ticket search tool with connections to bus and train routes), Rosssum (solution for the automatization and the business communication digitalization of paper documents) and Avast (antivirus program). An important company is also Cognitive Security (part of Cisco), which uses AI techniques to detect sophisticated cyber threats. SpeechTech and Phonexia work with voice biometrics and identification. Flowmon focuses on efficient management and network security. Thanks to AI, another Czech company, Cogniware, can detect threats from criminals and point them out. Moreover, it identifies if someone is carrying a gun, detects faces, language and how a person walks. Such technologies are of great interest to international security agencies.

European AI Center?

Prg.ai, which was founded by Charles University, CTU, Academy of Sciences and the city of Prague, began operations in 2019. Prg.ai wants to make Prague the center for European artificial intelligence within three years and so to attract world-class scientists. This initiative is aware of the decentralization of individual efforts that are developing in the Czech Republic in the AI field. Their main goals are, therefore, to develop the discussion among the academic, state, and private sectors and to inform the world about the Czech successes. Among other goals, there is the creation of an AI ecosystem, which will help retain highly qualified experts in this field; to help increase the number of AI students; the incubation of AI startups; and the proper set-up and proportional regulation of AI innovations in the industry.

Concerns About Excessive AI Regulation

The European Commission, one of the most important organs of the EU, defined AI as one of the significant topics for the program period 2021 – 2027. One part of the program is to develop four European research excellence centers, which will be financed by EU sources. The sources will develop a European AI ecosystem and the greatest experts of the field will work there. Prague is also applying to become one of those four centers. It is evident that Europe has noticed the technological gap between itself and the US or China and through these steps is trying to close that gap, even if only partially. The concerns about excessive AI regulation from the point of view of EU organs might slow the whole process down.

In the Czech Republic, the Ministry of Industry and Trade has developed the topic of Artificial intelligence for Safe Society, which resulted from National Strategy of Artificial Intelligence. The Czech Republic is following three main goals: to secure society’s safety (secure self-driven automobiles, cybersecurity, anti-terrorist measures); to make people’s lives easier (AI implementation in healthcare, school systems, transportation); and to achieve the European excellence center. Similar strategies can be found in other European countries, such as France, Germany, or Great Britain. The experts agree that even though the Czech Republic is trying, it still lags behind and it is necessary to ensure greater support from the state.

Despite some recent initiatives to support AI, a few challenges await the Central European country, one of which is to introduce systematic AI implementations and to increase the state engagement in these challenges. Further, it is necessary to systemize the investments, to support smaller projects and most of all, to secure broad education in the AI field. Only in doing so can we reach the defined goals, and become not only a European but also worldwide AI hub. Highly talented people, the essentials for reaching these goals, are already there.

Photo by:   Tereza Viktová