Jordi Vitrià:«Maybe in the future data banks will be more important than conventional banks»

In recent years data analysis has become a key element called to change the world as we know it. Jordi Vitrià—a professor at the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science of the University of Barcelona—is the Director of the Data Science @UB group of the UB, which has been distinguished with the TECNIO brand that the Generalitat of Catalonia only grants to entities that provide the most innovative technology.

Would we be able to live in a world without mathematics?
No, mathematics is present in both the simplest and the most complex things. It is one of the languages through which we understand the world, and provides the basis for other disciplines such as physics, computer science, and engineering. Without mathematics we would not have cell phones or cars.

What is Big Data?
Big Data stems from digitization. Currently you can digitize almost anything, but not so long ago photographs were only stored in negatives. Now we have them digitized, as well as our list of friends, our networks and work contacts, our preferences and so on. Big Data is the phenomenon that arises from this digitization and allows forecasts based on the development of different models. As a research group we develop algorithms that can predict situations in areas such as medicine, the Internet, and many others. It is a very horizontal technology, and many aspects, such as people, are more predictable than we first thought.

At present, data analysis helps us to predict things more accurately than before, such as weather forecasts or the air pollution index. It allows us to classify and recognize images through computer vision, and also to advance people’s preferences through recommender systems.

How relevant will it be in the future?
Perception and automatic decision systems will come into play in the future. Some decisions related to simple processes that today are taken by people, such as granting a loan, a bursary or access to the university, will be some day made by a machine, which will have the ability to predict if a certain person is the most suited on the basis of their personal data.

Big Data is also closely related to self-driving cars, which will revolutionize city life in less than twenty years. People will no longer have their own car, but cars will pick them up, take them to their destination, and then leave to park by themselves, which will reduce pollution in the cities. In addition, many lives will be saved, and as time goes by, experience will transform and erase the misgivings people currently have on this issue.

What social challenges will we face in such a context?
Many. Changes in society will make laws change. People will want to know who manages their data and what they are used for; the company that has the data being the same one that exploits them is not a sustainable model. The figure of the data bank is surely to appear. I still do not know what kind of institution it will be: public, private, or a non-profit provate organization, but perhaps in the future data banks will be more important than conventional banks. Just imagine that your mechanic transfers your car’s data to your insurance company: they could then raise insurance rates by looking at the speed you drive at or considering how you take curves. We are talking about very juicy data. People will want to choose what purposes they want to disclose their data for, so that these data are not misused. Therefore, someone must act as a conduit between data and the companies that exploit them, and a new sector will be born from this need.

What does the TECNIO brand mean for the Data Science research group?
Thanks to the TECNIO brand we have more visibility and a more presentable structure before companies. The TECNIO brand has allowed us to hire more staff, and this translates into greater productivity. The figure of the promoter, for example, is very important and helps us a lot, because he or she is only devoted to contact companies, something that we had to do by ourselves.

More about Jordi Vitrià

The best invention in history: The pencil, because it is the most powerful tool to help you think.
An invention you would like to see in the future: In Star Trek, Dr. McCoy had a medical gadget that did everything. I wish many medical tests could be performed by a similar device.
The future invention you are most afraid of: Artificial intelligence being applied to create autonomous weapons.
The FBG is… a contact point between the University of Barcelona and companies that has a very accurate view of what is happening at the UB and works to bring together different research groups so that they can help each other.

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