How can new fields benefit from data analysis and artificial intelligence? Heikki Mannila returns to university to develop multidisciplinary collaboration

Mannila left his position as President of the Academy of Finland and began on March 1 as professor at Aalto University, where he last served as Vice President 2010–2012
Heikki Mannila
Heikki Mannila returns to Aalto University to to advance multidisciplinary collaboration. Image: Matti Ahlgren/Aalto University

You have been leading a central research funding agency for years now. What draws you back to Aalto?

Leading the Academy was definitely a very interesting responsibility. I got to work with the entire field of research and research policy, the universities, polytechnics, research institutions, several different ministries, political decision-makers, foundations, and industry. 

But ten years is a long time. All the while it was clear to me that, after the second five-year term, I would like to do something different.

I would especially like to get closer to research itself, and research-based teaching. In that sense, coming to Aalto was a natural choice. In Aalto, development has been quick and it has been fun to see how much is going on here.

What will you do next?

The aim is to prepare an initiative relating to data analysis and the application and development of artificial intelligence. The initiative will advance multidisciplinary research and research-based teaching, as well as doctoral education and industry collaboration. It also involves a fund-raising component. A central aspect of this work is to have discussions with different stakeholders: what is already being done, what needs exist, and so on. The idea is to cover a broad range of research from applications to curiosity-driven research and back, of course in collaboration with the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence and other already ongoing marvellous activities. I will also be conducting research and teaching of my own.

You have spent a long time in research administration. How does it feel to return to research?

Nice! Data analysis and artificial intelligence have on the one hand been developing tremendously quickly, yet on the other hand some basic questions have stayed the same. I will of course need to update my knowledge. I have thought I would start by looking into methodological and application-related questions on science-political data sets, but of course there are many other interesting questions as well.

What is the high-point of your career so far?

It is hard to choose any one particular role out of all the different but interesting responsibilities I have had. In research, in industry, during Aalto’s founding years and the Academy the high points (and lows) have been different – there have been interesting things to do in all.

Heikki Mannila finished his doctoral thesis in the University of Helsinki in 1985, worked as a professor at the University of Helsinki 1989–1999 and became professor at the Helsinki University of Technology in 1999. He has been a visiting professor at the Vienna University of Technology 1993, visiting researcher at the Max Planck Institut für Informatik 1995-1996, senior researcher at Microsoft Research (Redmond) 1998–1999, research fellow at Nokia Research Centre 1999–2001, Academy Professor 2004–2008, the Director of HIIT 2009, the Vice President responsible for research and education 2010–2012 at Aalto University and President of the Academy of Finland 2012–2022.

Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence (external link)

The Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence FCAI is a research hub initiated by Aalto University, the University of Helsinki, and the Technical Research Centre of Finland VTT. The goal of FCAI is to develop new types of artificial intelligence that can work with humans in complex environments, and help modernize Finnish industry. FCAI is one of the national flagships of the Academy of Finland.

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