In an interview with ti&m, Dalith Steiger shares from where she gets her strength and motivation and explains why Switzerland does not need to hide its light under a bushel when it comes to AI.

Copyrights by ti&m & Christoph Grau.


SwissCognitiveDalith Steiger and her co-founder Andy Fitze have put their heart and soul into making Switzerland a global AI hub. She has been working all out for more than three years to make Switzerland a global AI hub. She tells us in this interview where she gets her strength and motivation and explains why Switzerland does not need to hide its light under a bushel when it comes to AI.

ti&m: What is your vision of a cognitive Switzerland?

Dalith Steiger: It’s our dream for Switzerland to not only advertise banks, chocolate and watches at Zurich, Geneva and Basel Airports, but also cognitive technologies. We believe that Switzerland can become one of the top 5 global competence centers for cognitive technologies. For example, when you think of cybersecurity today, the first thing to come to mind is Israel. We want to achieve this with Switzerland when it comes to cognitive technologies: Anyone thinking about AI should immediately think of Switzerland. But before we can get there, we need to do our homework – thoroughly and quickly.

What is this homework exactly?

We have excellent research and development facilities. In terms of sheer size, however, we cannot keep step with research and development in the US or China. Our country is home to around 600,000 SMEs. These SMEs already have to make investments with the evolution of digitalization. Now more work is being added for cognitive technologies. Where digitalization focused more on business efficiency, artificial intelligence principally changes products and services. How this works and how to understand its place in the global race to transform entire industries, that is the challenge facing us.

In terms of the measurably productive implementation of cognitive technologies, there is still a lack of productive cases, isn’t there?

Yes, we’re only at the beginning. But I want to emphasize that there’s already plenty going on in Switzerland. And that’s exactly why we’re shining a light on the existing use cases and carrying out reality checks with SwissCognitive. We want to manage expectations properly and for companies to motivate themselves by addressing the actual possibilities in their businesses and discussing them. Especially since there’s so much hype around the word AI that sometimes clouds people’s views.

How does that manifest itself?

Depending on your perspective, we have already completed 90 percent of the work, whereas others will say that we still have 90 percent yet to do. There are enormous discrepancies in the estimates. Siri can already do a lot, for example. But if I think about all the potential that’s still untapped, I come to the conclusion that we’re only scratching the surface.

How far along are Swiss companies?

Finding out where Swiss companies are at was quite high up on our to-do list when we founded SwissCognitive. Three years ago, Switzerland was still a no-man’s land when it came to cognitive technologies. Our first event was attended by 35 companies, but none of them had much of an idea about how, where and why they should use cognitive technologies. Most of them were, however, aware that they could expect something to happen. All of them thought that the US was much further along. We did a bit of research and found that they put their pants on one leg at a time on the other side of the pond, too. But you do have to give it to the Americans: They are the better salespeople…  In any case, three years on, we can see that there are now a lot of practical use cases.

Why haven’t we heard about them?

Switzerland is still far too modest. Do good and spread the word! The main thing is that we should share our experiences. It helps us if we can learn from each other and reap the benefits. People love to talk about best practices, but companies tend to keep quiet about their worst failures. But these are in fact the most valuable experiences and projects. Failure is a great teacher. It’s a fact that all companies struggle with data quality, but nobody wanted to say it loud and clear at the beginning. But why not? Problems don’t get solved by keeping them under wraps. Problems are solved by actively addressing them.

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Where do people come into this?

People are the central element. Without them, the best technology is no use at all. To put it in a nutshell: 10 percent is technology, 90 percent is about people – we should never forget that!

How justified are the fears in the public debate?

Technologies are not only changing business processes, but also our society and hence the world of work. This affects all of us. People have a right to know what we can already do with AI today and how far we’ve come. Unfortunately, fears are being stirred up with science fiction. I wish the media would contribute more to factual explanations of the technologies. Then the discussions around the kitchen table or in the bar could be more realistic. At the end of the day, we’re still talking about algorithms that can be used only in very narrowly defined fields. We are currently taking the first global steps with the use of cognitive technologies. There’s still a long time to wait before the first chess-playing, self-driving car comes to market. The superintelligence we’re all afraid of is currently just a theory with no basis in reality. I would like to make the debate more objective, and fast. Otherwise, we run the risk of slowing down and being left behind. The debate about the ethical questions concerning AI is somewhere where we Swiss should play an active and incredibly vital responsible role. With our neutrality and globally accepted position as a partner in discussions and negotiations, we are predestined to put forward our values as a framework for dealing with AI. Let’s do this together. 

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