Once thought to be a far-fetched technology rife with pop culture cautionary tales, artificial intelligence (AI) has certainly come a long way. The term now occupies a permanent spot in techspeak glossaries, and its application in everyday life is even more prolific. Google’s assistive technologies, customer service chatbots, social media advertising, and GPS navigation are only a scant fraction of how AI has improved our life quality. And that’s barely scratching the surface of its full potential.
In Northern Sweden, one institution has been the seedbed of AI growth since the 1970s. At Umeå University, nearly 100 researchers and teachers are mining AI technology for better application, efficiency and reliability across multiple fields. They include the likes of Helena Lindgren, Umeå University’s Professor of Computing Science who is invested in AI systems for dementia diagnostics; and Professor Virginia Dignum, member-elect of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) and the Programme Director for the Wallenberg Programme on Humanities and Society for AI, Autonomous Systems and Software (WASP-HS), a large-scale research programme exploring the intersections of AI and the social sciences.
In life sciences, AI is driving new frontiers in biological research through advanced pattern recognition derived from big data, machine learning and collaboration across disciplines. It is already predicted to revolutionise biology in the same manner that statistics transformed it in the 20th century. Umeå University’s location in the City of Birches makes it the perfect centre for biological innovation. The Umeå Plant Science Centre (UPSC) is one of Europe’s most advanced research environments on plant biology, and it is changing the way we understand and use trees through sustainable breeding methods.
Conifer forest tree species have very large genomes that make genome sequencing more challenging than for crop species or other organisms like humans. With machine learning, researchers at UPSC are developing tools to analyse gene networks that illustrate which genes are interacting with each other and how genomes are regulated. One example is “Seidr,” a software developed by former PhD student, now Dr. Bastian Schiffthaler. “Seidr” will help to link the make-up of trees to genetic markers to speed up the development of new forest tree varieties that can cope with future climate conditions.
How AI is redefining ‘biodata’ at Umeå
Life sciences’ dependency on data cannot be understated, which is why Sweden has made “Data-Driven Life Science (DDLS)” a national priority to embrace quantitative approaches in the field. Similar to genetic mapping, molecular data study entails a staggering amount of data, hence why DDLS is adopting a long-term strategy to set out what it intends to achieve in the coming years. This includes training the next generation of competent AI users in all kinds of scientific research. Umeå University is a participant in the DDLS programme, since it is home to the laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS).
The Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS) is one of Europe’s leading strongholds in genetically-based treatments, and is part of the transnational Nordic EMBL Partnership for Molecular Medicine. The Wallenberg Centre for Molecular Medicine (WCMM) at Umeå applies the DDLS framework in its projects, combining AI with all fields of natural sciences and medicine down to the cellular level. MIMS is especially prepared to interact with the DDLS programme due to its strong research commitment in biology and epidemiology of infection, which are no doubt invaluable amid a roaring global pandemic.
“We are delighted to see infection medicine strengthened further in Umeå, and I look forward to collaborating with WCMM to foster the next generation of talented researchers in this area,” remarks Professor Oliver Billker, director of MIMS in an interview on Umeå University’s website. The laboratory’s far-reaching research network further includes collaborative projects with the EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), which oversees the world’s most comprehensive range of freely available molecular data resources. As a home for big data holding 390 petabytes (390,000 terabytes) of storage, AI-powered research at EMBL-EBI is more crucial than ever to organise complex bioinformatics for life-changing discoveries.
For prospective AI researchers, the Master’s Programme in Artificial Intelligence at Umeå University is rigorous in its breadth and depth to train emerging experts in the field. With five profile areas of special interest, which include human-AI interaction and intelligent robotics, graduates’ future prospects are endless as more disciplines become increasingly reliant on big data and machine learning.
The university’s interdisciplinary scientific network provides a fertile ground in fostering a supportive environment for researchers, where they can emphatically learn with mathematical modellers and computer scientists to maximise research output. The proof? Just look at the university’s very own Emmanuelle Charpentier, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020 together with Jennifer A. Doudna. Umeå University has a long tradition of fusing future-forward knowledge with ethics for landmark scientific achievements, and is constantly recruiting the next generation of scientists (and data scientists) who will be technologically-proficient graduates well ahead of their peers.
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