Maxim Fedorov: "It Makes No Sense to Leave Moscow for Silicon Valley"

Maxim Fedorov: "It Makes No Sense to Leave Moscow for Silicon Valley"

The first Youth Internet Governance Forum (Youth RIGF) will be held on April 6 at Skolkovo Tech. Participants will discuss cybersecurity, trust in digital products, risks of implementing new technologies, and other questions.

Maxim Fedorov: "It Makes No Sense to Leave Moscow for Silicon Valley"
One of the speakers at the event will be Skoltech professor Maxim Fedorov, a member of the UNESCO international group of experts on the development of ethical norms for artificial intelligence. He told the Izvestia newspaper how the digital environment is developing in Russia, why the IT sphere lacks human resources and what humanities majors can do in the field of technology.


You are one of the speakers in the Digital Economy section of the forum. What do you think is the key to successful digitalization?

First of all, human resources and the transfer of knowledge from the technological community to users and decision-makers. At Skolkovo Tech, based on our Data Science master's program we are just launching a special track to train leaders in the digital economy in conjunction with the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO and other organizations. We need people who, on the one hand, have managerial baggage, know how to run a large business and set tasks, and, on the other, understand the essence of the technology.

New products, solutions, and platforms appear every day. The market is quite eclectic: there are big players, transnationals, and new young teams that fill emerging niches. Many technologies develop exponentially, and any person responsible for some sector of the economy in state management needs to understand what innovations are and what they are all about.

Implementation requires not only a purely technological study, but also a business study: what are the benefits, what are the risks, where to find the right people for the job? That is why I am now busy working a lot at various sites as an expert in technological risk assessment. But risks can be social, economic, cultural, and other.

Everything has to be thought through and assessed - in fact, this is a new and very popular specialty. Today companies and public authorities in every country are looking for people who understand technology and who know how to analyze it from this point of view. For example, is it possible to save money with an innovation, or will it result in losses and damage?

Let's take biometrics to illustrate this point. It's a good technology, but it can be compromised only once. If crooks steal the database of passwords - it's unpleasant, but not terrible - they can be changed or restored. And if they steal a database containing employee retinas or fingerprints? You can't change everyone's fingerprints or retinas - it's impossible.

There are a lot of open questions, including ethical ones. You need competent personnel and an understanding of how the specifics of technology implementation work.

Do you mean to say that when training specialists, you need to pay attention not only to technology, but also to business, ethics and economics? How should IT education be structured?

Let's start with ethics, which is now coming to the fore as a regulatory tool. Legislation does not keep pace with technology, and in this industry, ethical standards often remain the main regulatory factor.

Ethics and risk courses are definitely a must because they have a lot to do with cybersecurity, the so-called digital immunity and digital sovereignty of both the citizen and the company or the state as a whole. One should have at least an elementary understanding of these issues.

Finally, we need courses on management methods in the digital world; we are developing them now. They have nuances of their own because lots of new things keep popping up. We are trying to train our students in terms of not only technology, but also ways to apply it in reality.

How has the prestige of IT education changed in Russia in recent years?

IT professions have been prestigious for a long time; we cannot say that public interest in them appeared overnight. But there has been increased interest in the following fields: artificial intelligence, big data, supercomputing, natural language processing and others. These fields did not spring out of the blue either, but their popularity has skyrocketed because of a large number of new applications. People are moving into these niches even from traditional IT fields because they are offered higher salaries, more interesting tasks and a lot of new ideas and solutions. The mass media contribute to their promotion, too.

But there is a problem of staff shortages. They cause complaints around the world, be it in the United States, China, Iran or Europe. Now universities all over the world are launching new programs in these specialties expanding enrollment.

What is the reason for this shortage of human resources?

First of all, they don't have enough professors. The industry is sucking the best people out of universities. At Skolkovo Tech we work hard to keep our professors, and any university with good teachers makes heroic efforts to retain them. People in these jobs don't stay in the higher education system, they go to higher positions and salaries in the industry, so it's hard to expand the programs.

Second, there are not enough tutorials. If you are a good specialist capable of writing a textbook, there is always an option for you to make better use of your time financially – there are always more interesting projects, offers and so on. What we need here is really strong enthusiasts.

This is a global problem, and it is being solved in different ways. In my opinion, the most productive way is to create joint educational programs in conjunction with companies. In this way specialists can communicate with students and give lectures without having to take a break from their main activity.

We at Skolkovo Tech have been quite successful in implementing this experience, and every leading university in Russia has a large number of departments and laboratories that collaborate with leading market players. The world is moving in this direction, trying to solve the problem. In fact, we are talking about convergence, the creation of platforms where enterprises and universities work together to train personnel.


Does it take a fundamental higher education to train them or will the courses suffice?

They are not a substitute for each other. I wouldn't say that courses are an alternative to higher education and vice versa. As a person who has worked abroad a lot, I understand that having a foundation is a must. I can see that guys in many Western universities lack basic training, these poor guys are forced to constantly retrain in "new old" fields. When one doesn't understand the fundamentals, they have to learn new technologies all the time, almost from scratch.

This is why there is a race to retrain every six months, and each technology required some time to learn it. It happens because people didn't get the basics in their student years. When people ask me, "Maxim, how do you and your colleagues manage to switch from one topic to another so quickly?", I reply, "The entire field is actually defined by a couple dozen basic formulas, basic theorems, and approaches to programming.

Conversely, if you don't understand how the fundamentals of technology work, everything seems like magic. A kind of black box. There is a lot of talk now about the "black box" problem in different contexts, but it is often about lack of education rather than about the complexity of the technology. The task of scientists is, among other things, to demystify innovation.

How quickly do university programs adapt to new technologies?

It depends on the universities, but people also need to be educated through social media: they should be told why higher education is necessary. Mathematics hasn't changed much: two times two is still four, just like in ancient Egypt.

Universities should be a source of fundamental knowledge, and schools should provide a good grounding in mathematics, which is still the queen of all sciences.

The Skoltech system involves communicating with employers in the early stages of education, not terms of job vacancies, but through scientific or technological projects. There is an effective mutual exchange: on the one hand, students gain fundamental knowledge and, on the other hand, they understand what the market and customers need. All of the world's leading universities are moving in this direction.


What should humanities majors take up in the digital world?

We are in great need of humanities majors. First of all, digital technologies in the humanities are becoming increasingly more popular - for example, in art and linguistics. Such areas are expanding thanks to technologies of natural language processing, image generation and processing, and so on.

Secondly, the 21st century is called the century of philosophers because innovation frees us from routine operations. In many professions and activities, humans can be partially or fully replaced by robots.

The challenge for humanitarians is not only to master the tools, but also to answer eternal questions. Technology is a mirror that asks everyone the question, "Why are we here on earth? We are about to be freed from most of routine operations, but what is our purpose next?" First a human was a productive force, then a voter, a consumer, and now what?

Humanitarians, in my view, should create a spurt for the development of society not so much technologically as socially. They have to help get to the next stage, otherwise... The problem is not so much that robots will defeat people as people themselves may become robots.

Humanitarians are also in a position to deal with issues of ethics and law.

You have worked abroad and noticed that students there do not have a good foundation. Should our students aspire for Silicon Valley or somewhere else? Where is it better?

This forum is the right place to be discussing these questions. Where is it better? And better for whom? This is a question of priorities and motivation, and those may be different for young people and the older generation. The same old question again - What is happiness? What is good and what is bad?

If we talk about the specific criteria by which young people rank their success, it makes no sense to leave Moscow, St. Petersburg or Novosibirsk for Silicon Valley from a financial point of view. We work a lot with young people, we analyze salaries, and we understand that given the taxes and prices for the same standard of living, there is more money to be had here.

There are also other difficulties - adapting to a different culture and a different social status. It takes years to adjust to life in a foreign country. The social status of an immigrant is akin to that of a refugee: regardless of education and qualifications, you stand in the same line at the visa office as people fleeing from the Middle East.

As for interesting tasks, Russian technology centers also offer quite a few of them, too. Some of them are totally unique, for example, those related to mining. This is even more complicated than the space industry: you need to drill a large number of horizontal wells at a kilometer depth, and the earth is not transparent, a telescope won't help. We know less about the subsurface of the Earth than we do about outer space - we do not yet possess the technology to look deep.

In Russia it is interesting, Russia now needs to use the unique opportunity to develop in new niches, in which there is no world leader, with the help of its scientific base. Surprisingly, when digitalization problems are discussed on international platforms, Russia is the only country that comes forward with a scientific approach to assessing the risks and global effects of technology.

This is valuable because, unfortunately, the global community tries to solve many important issues in a discussion manner. Renown experts gather and discuss. But, if you pardon me, many questions require scientific research, which takes more than two hours or two weeks. You need experiments, data collection and so on. We have retained this approach, and I hope it will continue to be transmitted from the scientific community to the executive and state authorities. In principle, there is a dialogue, and it is quite a productive one.


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