Insight’s Noel O’Connor: ‘AI is having a transformative effect on society’

21 Jan 2020

Noel O’Connor. Image: SFI

Noel O’Connor of the Insight SFI research centre discusses the future of AI and data analytics, the issue of diversity in STEM, and how he balances his responsibilities.

Noel O’Connor is the CEO of Insight, which is the largest Science Foundation Ireland-funded research centre in Ireland. Here, he brings together universities, researchers and industry partners to focus on the future of data analytics.

O’Connor, who is also a professor at the School of Electronic Engineering in Dublin City University, took on the role last year.

‘When technology moves from the lab to deployment, it uncovers unanticipated limitations of the approach, which then informs future research’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m CEO of the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics.

Insight is the largest SFI-funded research centre in Ireland, with funding of €49m from SFI for 2019 to 2025, corresponding to a total budget envelope of €150m. It brings together eight universities, more than 450 researchers and 80-plus industry partners. I have been acting CEO since 1 July 2019.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Badly – but I better not say that.

As a working academic, it is important to be able to balance the time spent managing the centre and the centre’s overall scientific vision with my own research. This means carving out time to meet with my research group.

I am lucky that the academics I collaborate with are very understanding of my time pressures and that I have some exceptional postdoctoral researchers in my team who support me in PhD student supervision and research project management.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is having a transformative effect on society. This brings huge opportunity for technological advancement but also challenges for our industry partners, both large and small, to ensure that they can avail of the potential benefits.

This is why partnering with companies is integral to SFI research centres. Insight investigators can bring their expertise and knowledge of the current state-of-the-art in AI and related areas to Irish companies to enable them to integrate that expertise into their organisations and help drive future technology and product road maps.

We are also keenly aware of the potential challenges AI brings to society and that is why we place a huge focus on education and public engagement, whether it be influencing national or EU policy at the highest levels or by ensuring a rich ongoing dialogue with all sectors of the public, from school kids to the elderly.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Advances in machine learning, mathematics and statistics, engineering and data science itself as a maturing discipline have fuelled recent progress in AI. Progress has been such that techniques and technologies that were once only demonstrable in research settings are now ready for deployment in real settings.

This is exciting as usually what happens is that when a technology moves from the lab to deployment, it uncovers unanticipated limitations of the approach, which then in turn informs future research, leading to a virtuous cycle of industry-informed research and innovation.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

An excellent undergraduate and postgraduate education (and heartfelt thanks and respect to my lecturers and supervisors for getting me to that point), followed by exposure as a young academic to the benefits of multi-disciplinary and cross-institutional research, thanks to more senior academic colleagues.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I, like many academics, find it difficult not to micromanage things. This is probably borne out of the fact that we are curiosity driven and have a natural tendency to want to be involved in every aspect of the work. But if you’re a senior academic with a big research team and research management responsibilities, this is not personally sustainable nor of benefit to an organisation in the longer term.

It’s much better to empower and support people who work for you to do their job to the best of their ability and then trust them to do so. I could have avoided a lot of stress worrying about research outcomes at the start of my academic career if I had learnt this a little earlier.

How do you get the best out of your team?

As mentioned above, I believe that a fundamental tenet of leadership is empowering members of your team to reach their potential. Part of this is ensuring that their opinion is sought, listened to and acted upon, even if contrary to your original planned course of action.

I am lucky in Insight that I have an excellent and strong centre leadership group, a team of world-class researchers in eight institutions to draw upon, a second-to-none operations team who look after the day-to-day running of the centre, and an education and public engagement team who are passionate about science communication and informing society at large about the positive societal impacts of data analytics.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

There is a huge diversity problem in STEM education in general and unfortunately this percolates its way into the research community. For example, the number of women (itself just one aspect of diversity) in senior academic and research positions remains very low across all Irish universities, and this reflects the global situation.

Whilst I don’t believe that there is a short-term solution to the diversity problem in the university sector, it is now at least recognised and more or less quantified by our universities, enabling specific strategies and initiatives to be put in place to address this over time. Within Insight, we committed to working with our host universities to play our part in addressing what is a serious problem for the sector.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

Too many to mention them all for fear of leaving someone out! Successive heads of the School of Electronic Engineering in DCU and executive deans of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing have helped me along my career journey, as have many others in the university.

I will, however, specifically mention Prof Alan Smeaton and Prof Dermot Diamond, who have been great advisors on all aspects of the vagaries of academic life over the years.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I’m a science fiction nerd, and any good science fiction nerd will always return to two key staples of the genre – Frank Herbert’s Dune (the original, not the entire trilogy and the various poorer follow ups) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (the entire trilogy).

These should be required reading for every first-year undergraduate engineering and computing student!

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My most essential resource is the team in Insight that supports me to do my job. Beyond that its coffee, regular exercise and as much time as possible with the family in the evenings. There’s nothing like standing at the side of a pitch in the dark and the rain watching the U11s and U13s GAA teams to clear the head for the following day’s work!

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