Javier Panadero, UOC researcher and an expert in the design of intelligent decision-making algorithms for complex systems
Javier Panadero was one of the UOC's (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) most prolific researchers in terms of scientific output in 2020. He is a member of the UOC Internet Interdisciplinary Institute's (IN3) Internet Computing & Systems Optimization (ICSO) research group and an expert in the design of intelligent decision-making algorithms for complex systems. He is also a member of the UOC's Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications, where he is co-director of the Master's Degree in Computational and Mathematical Engineering.
In a previous interview, you and your colleague Laura Calvet explained how the ICSO group had been involved in the charitable project, Coronamakers, which aimed to optimize the collection and distribution to healthcare workers of materials 3D-printed by organizations and private individuals in the difficult first stage of the pandemic. What do you take from that experience?
It was a very positive and rewarding experience that enabled us to apply all the research we had carried out in our research group in the last few years to attempt to solve a very complex problem in almost record time. It really was a challenge for everyone as, in addition to being very complex, the problem was constantly changing; it changed as the pandemic progressed. We faced new problems every day and only had a few hours to solve them. Everyone in the research group is very happy to have had the chance to collaborate and contribute with our knowledge to help healthcare workers do their job as well as possible.
ICSO collaborates with companies on a variety of projects. What role should academic research have in terms of business?
In my opinion, it should play a key role in the field of technology, which is the field I'm most familiar with. I think that a researcher's main motivation should be to use their knowledge to help society. In order for that to happen, research needs to be transferred, either by means of contracts with companies or through industrial doctoral programmes. Once a research project has been completed and the relevant scientific papers have been published to enable other researchers to make further progress, we should try to go one step further and apply the research, something that is only possible with the help of companies. This is why universities and businesses need each other and must always go hand in hand.
As you have shown with your contribution to Coronamakers, at ICSO you are experts in the application of algorithms in a range of fields, such as logistics. What other fields are algorithms useful for?
In our research group, we're experts in data science, machine learning and designing intelligent algorithms, and we look to apply the methods we design in such varied fields as logistics and transport, finance, manufacturing, telecommunications, healthcare, and bioinformatics. Rather than focusing on any particular field of application, we try to propose different types of tools that can help make decisions in complex environments.
Can you tell us about some of the future challenges facing your field of research in the medium and long term?
The emergence of smart cities has given rise to many new challenges that will need to be addressed in the next few years in order to fully develop this urban model. For example, we need to be able to coordinate self-driving vehicles with their surroundings if they're going to travel safely and en masse in cities. Another example is the environmental sustainability of these cities, which is a very significant challenge and one of the goals of the 2030 Agenda. The solutions to both challenges require intelligent algorithms.
Technology has accelerated many changes in our society in the last decade. Have you also noticed substantial changes in your own field of research?
The research carried out by our group is highly applied, and we always strive to solve problems that will emerge in society in the coming years. So, we're constantly changing and learning. Thanks to technology, we can solve more complex problems faster every day: our current computational resources are nothing like what was available ten years ago.
Among the concerns about using technology in our daily lives are cybercrime or misuse of our data. Should we be careful with how we use technology?
Although I'm not a security or cybercrime expert, what I have noticed is that businesses and even governments didn't start to take this seriously until relatively recently. This meant cybercriminals were able to take advantage of the situation, which led to many people losing trust in technology. I think it's good to be careful, but we shouldn't be too sceptical about the use of technology, as it's here to make our lives easier.
Does that mean it's a mistake to not take on board certain technologies, such as mobile technologies or connected devices and the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things, with all its associated technology, is here to stay; it will make our lives easier and more comfortable. So, not taking advantage of it would be a big mistake. As I said earlier, if we want this technology to be completely secure, the companies working on it need to let their cybersecurity experts take a leading role. Likewise, there needs to be clear legislation on this.
You're a member of the teaching staff for the Master's Degree in Computational and Mathematical Engineering. What can students gain from this programme?
With the rise of artificial intelligence, big data, the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0, it is no longer enough for anyone looking to work in these sectors to be an expert in just computing or mathematics: companies are now looking for candidates with a mixed profile combining both disciplines. As a member of the teaching staff and director of the master's degree, I aim to provide interdisciplinary training in the fields of advanced computing and applied mathematics. Likewise, the programme also includes a strong research component for students wishing to go into academia, and opens the door to a PhD.
Do you think the profile of technology university student has changed from when you were a student?
Although this may not apply so much to the UOC because, as an online university, it has students from all over the world, I have noticed a significant fall in the number of students enrolling on engineering degrees at on-site universities, where most students are from Spain, and this will be a problem in the next 10 or 15 years. Without engineers, there's a very high risk of being left out of the technological revolution we are now seeing and of having to depend on others. Final-year students who are starting to join the world of work have told me that they don't feel that the salaries on offer in the Spanish job market are enough to compensate for the huge effort required to study an engineering programme. Either we seriously consider changing the terms of employment or we run a very high risk of ending up without any engineers, with serious consequences for our economy in the medium to long term.
The pandemic has raised the profile of science amongst the general public. Have you seen scientific research become more highly appreciated outside academia?
Although the general public has always been very aware of the importance of research to make society move forward and increase people's quality of life, during the pandemic I've seen how the importance of science in people's daily lives has become clearer. Science was previously seen as important for improving the future, but now it's seen as key to improving the present.
The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century, by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.
Over 500 researchers and 51 research groups work among the University's seven faculties and two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).
The University also cultivates online learning innovations at its eLearn Center (eLC), as well as UOC community entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer via the Hubbik platform.
The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu #UOC25years