What’s in store for businesses that tap into AI and analytics?

18 Oct 2022

Image: Dr Anastasia Griva

Dr Anastasia Griva is exploring real-world phenomena in the AI and business analytics space, looking to answer questions that are important to society.

Dr Anastasia Griva received her PhD in business analytics from the Athens University of Economics and Business three years ago. This was an industry-funded PhD and she worked closely with the retail sector, while establishing two AI and analytics start-ups.

But academia was her dream and so she joined the University of Galway as a post-doc researcher. She applied successfully for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship through Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for software. After this, she obtained her first academic position as a lecturer, and she is now the programme director for the MSc in business analytics at the University of Galway.

‘I think that my research is necessary because it impacts society’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

Currently, I am working on several pieces of research in the areas of genealogy, AI, business analytics and innovation. Some of these are more theoretically based, so I would rather discuss the more practical area of my research.

One start-up I am involved with has a big retail client with more than 4,000 European retail outlets. The start-up provides a software development toolkit (SDK) for this client, which can be embedded in the client’s mobile app.

Using some tracking technologies and AI, it can identify the accurate location of a user in indoor environments. This SDK aims to identify a user’s precise location in in-store settings and provide shoppers with location-based recommendations and content.

For this retailer, the accurate identification of users’ location is important mainly due to regulatory requirements. Users, for example, may not be allowed to access specific content outside the licensed store area.

There is a bit of a battle on whether the start-up should reveal how their AI algorithm, developed to identify users’ location, works. However, this algorithm is the start-up’s competitive advantage ­– this is what differentiates it from other solutions.

So, they offer it as a ‘black box’ to protect it. This means the client has no idea about the specifics of how it works. But on the other hand, the client wants to discover and understand how this black box AI works; otherwise, it is difficult for them to understand the outcomes.

So, now we are trying to explore from an academic perspective how we will theoretically frame this piece of study to publish a paper in a high-impact journal.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I think that my research is necessary because it impacts society. As a researcher, I am trying to explore real-world phenomena and provide answers to questions that are important to society.

For instance, in the above example, it is crucial to research how companies should treat AI black boxes when they are created by smaller companies and start-ups to protect trade secrets.

An important thing about my research is that, since it explores real-life cases, it can be used to develop case studies and policy debriefs to educate society on such topics.

A welcome indirect impact of my research is that, since it is practice-based, it provides the opportunity to provide research-informed teaching, enriching the content of the modules we teach in our programmes. This way, it also impacts our students positively.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As an undergraduate student in Greece, I was involved in the organising committee of an annual student conference run by faculty members of the Athens University of Economics and Business.

In essence, students and junior researchers from several universities in Greece could submit papers to this conference, and the accepted papers would be presented during the one-day conference. Several research centres also had the opportunity to contribute.

I was a first-year undergrad, so I didn’t submit a paper. However, I attended several sessions and observed the presentations. I was impressed with what a researcher can do and how they can deep-dive into specific pieces to better understand a phenomenon.

I contacted a research centre during the conference and started working with them as a research assistant. Many years later, this was the centre where I started my PhD.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

A significant challenge and a risk that we have depends on access to companies and different datasets. It can be difficult to build a good working relationship with some companies to have the ability to gather data from observations and qualitative means, such as interviews or to run surveys.

Also, it is far more difficult to obtain actual raw data to analyse. For instance, my research also focuses on business analytics and artificial intelligence, so you need big datasets to build modes and extract results. It is challenging to find a company willing to share its data.

Even if you, for example, analyse a retail dataset and identify shopper behaviour patterns via an algorithm, it is challenging to convince the company to run a pilot for their customers based on your results.

Another challenge is that I might have a nice practitioner-oriented story, such as the one with the start-up and the AI black box. Although this story might sound interesting, it is sometimes tricky to theoretically frame it to publish a paper in a high-impact outlet. So, as a junior researcher, in these cases, it is vital to have a mentor and a co-author to assist with this.

I think that a misconception I faced earlier in my career was that some companies or people were biased toward research, saying that theory is not applicable to practice. However, I think this has toned down significantly, as companies now approach research centres to deep-dive into their problems in a neutral manner and make suggestions.

For instance, at Lero in Galway, we cooperate with several companies such as Intel’s research and development centre in Shannon, Co Clare.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

I think that in recent years, due to events such as Covid-19, the public has paid more attention to scientists. However, I would say this does not apply to all scientists from different fields, but mainly those in the medical and social fields.

During the first wave of the virus outbreak, humanity placed their faith in medical scientists waiting for the vaccine and updates regarding Covid-19. I remember that back in those days, the media always had some invited scientists on their panels, and there were many articles from scientists in news outlets.

These scientists were medical or social scientists, discussing vaccine-related issues or the impact of Covid-19 on society and our lives. Since then, it is evident that we can all see a lot more scientists in the news, media etc.

At the same time, we should admit that the reaction from ‘science deniers’ got a bigger chance to grab the spotlight. So overall, I would say that the engagement with scientists has increased during Covid-19, which is also related to how we can fight the various misconceptions and fake news we hear and see all over the place.

Regarding how I engage with the public, I make presentations at events, in public interest colloquiums, or I try to engage by writing some articles in non-academic magazines or media interviews. I also conduct presentations to undergrads in other universities or even secondary schools, trying to inspire young people.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.