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Artificial intelligence at Bocconi: an interview with Rector Verona

Gianmario Verona, the Rector of Bocconi University
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by Matteo Cremonesi

These are exciting times to be a student at Bocconi. This year alone has seen the opening of a stunning new campus for Bocconi’s business school, SDA Bocconi School of Management, notable improvements in the university’s position in global rankings, and the launch of a new Bachelor of Science for the study of artificial intelligence. It is precisely about the latter that we asked Professor Gianmario Verona, Rector of Bocconi, when he kindly agreed to sit down for an interview with us. 

Indeed, this is a very ambitious project even for Bocconi. Despite having invested for years in mathematical optimization, statistics, data science and machine learning, this new program is taking the game to another level. Not just because of its pioneering nature as far as undergraduate programs are concerned, but also because of the state of the market for AI in Italy, still in its early stages of development. In fact, in 2018 only €85 millions have been spent on AI in Italy, with the country not even making the top 10 for number of AI companies. However, it has been estimated that AI will add $15 trillion to the world economy by 2030, and prospects for employability of AI professionals are very promising, to say the least. It’s clear then that to stay competitive in an environment where AI is quickly taking such a prominent role in the labor market and, very soon, in everyday life, universities will have to expand their educational offer to include programs like the BSc in Mathematical and Computing Sciences for Artificial Intelligence. We’ll let Rector Verona describe with in his own words.

  • Mr. Rector, which 3 words would you choose to describe this new Bachelor program?

Multidisciplinary, innovative and fundamental, because this program provides the fundamental basis for understanding and applying AI to different fields, and this is the reason why it is a Bachelor degree, because we believe that after it people can decide to apply to different Master of Science programs. AI is a multidisciplinary field. Although many people think AI is about computer science, it is also about math, logic, data science and theoretical physics. This Bachelor is the first, to our knowledge, that combines these different fields and provides a 360 degree perspective on artificial intelligence.”

  • Three years ago, the BSc in Economics, Management and Computer Science started, with its first class graduating in the past few months. Very soon after that, the MSc in Data Science and Business Analytics was launched. Finally, the announcement of the new BSc in Mathematical and Computing Sciences for Artificial Intelligence was made. Is this the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Bocconi? From excellence in the social sciences to excellence in technology?
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“We don’t believe that we’ll become a technology university, because that’s not our field: that’ll remain social science. However, we believe that to be strong in the social science of the future you need to be able to handle the complexity of AI and of data and computer science, which will become pervasive methods for social science. So, if we don’t create strong competence in these fields, we will never continue to be excellent in social science. If then, like many institutions and organizations, we become strong enough to launch additional programs in technology, why not? But we’re not changing our mission as a social sciences university, we’re simply trying to adapt our competence to a world in which the digital transformation and AI are becoming crucial.”

  • You’ve talked about how AI, technology and applied mathematics are crucial to a modernization of the social sciences. How do the social sciences enrich the formation of a professional in the field of AI?

“I think the social sciences are one of the most important applied fields because probably 70% of jobs have to do with institutions that deal with social sciences. I’m thinking about big multinationals, policy makers, institutions that work at different levels and different fields. The social sciences offer great opportunities for application of machine learning and algorithms. Moreover, there’s a sense in which the social sciences, differently from the natural sciences, are complex, not in terms of difficulty, but because the number of variables in the social sciences and the inability to create lab experiments to understand how those variables interact make the social sciences an extremely complex field. So, I think that applying AI to this field greatly enriches those who handle technology and these types of algorithms.”

  • Now, could you tell us about how this new program came about?

“We’ve had many conversations with our stakeholders, that are pushing Bocconi to continue on its innovative path in our traditional fields. In these conversations it became clear that supporting the students’ background in these new fields is crucial. This is why we launched the BSc and MSc that you previously mentioned. Now we have more and more people working hard in this direction. We have the ARTLAB with Prof. Zecchina, the Data and Marketing Insights research unit with Dirk Hovy, and these professors were very prominent in suggesting the development of a new BSc that was “purer” from the viewpoint of the contamination with the social sciences. Attributing too many credits in terms of lesson hours to the social sciences runs the risk of creating a hybrid, so we did something which is at the extreme. I see our courses along a continuum. On one hand we have more humanities-driven courses, on the other more science-driven courses. We needed something more on the latter side, even more technical than the BEMACS program, possibly less interesting to some students because it’s more method-driven and therefore less engaged in specific fields, but we thought it was important to invest there.”

  • Mr. Rector, you’ve recently stated that Bocconi has been following the model of the most prestigious universities of the English speaking world. However, those universities have not only invested and launched new courses in technology and AI, but also in social scientific fields such as gender studies, ethnic and racial studies and philosophy. It goes without saying that Italian society could benefit enormously from more academic output on these topical issues. Is Bocconi planning to further expand its educational offer to include them?
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“That’s very important because it follows the storytelling of humans and technology: the more we go towards technological societies the more important it is to emphasize the variety and complexity of the human experience. So yes, we’ve expanded in that direction as well. We’ve created Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in political sciences, we’ve invested in the Department of Social and Political Sciences, we have a number of demographers, sociologists, we’ve introduced a mandatory course in critical thinking, and this goes to show how open we are towards these topics. We offer a course in the economics of development, which deals with poverty; gender issues are important elements of research at our DONDENA research center, so we’re into that as well. Clearly, we’re a small institution, and we don’t have the outreach that other generalist universities may have. We do employ psychologists and sociologists, but they do applied research in management and economics.”

  • Mr. Rector, as we learned by the leak of secret documents of the Chinese government, the regime led by President Xi is using AI to commit alleged human rights violation in concentration camps in the Xinjiang region. How is Bocconi planning to educate students about the impact and potential dangers of artificial intelligence?

“The new BSc has been developed with attention to the frame provided by the ministry of education, which emphasizes aspects like ethics but also sets boundaries to the number of credits that you can devote to these matters. So we’re planning to have courses on the ethics of AI, which is a crucial element, and we also believe that the kind of humus that will grow from studying AI in a university like ours will alert students about the inappropriate uses of AI through seminars and many events that characterize our community.”

  • How is Bocconi, a prestigious institution for the study of economics and management, going to compete with top universities whose reputation in mathematics and technology is already well established?
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“We don’t think we’ll ever compete with technology universities. We think, instead, that we’re closer to competing in mathematics. Historically, the applied field of economics has benefitted a lot from mathematics and many Nobel laureates in economics are mathematicians, some statisticians, and only in the last 15 years some focusing on methods. Therefore, we do believe that we’ll become more prominent in the field of math. However, we don’t want to become a technology institute, we want to become a university that is credible in researching and teaching the kind of math and the kind of technology that is important for the social sciences.”

  • Could you describe for us the ideal candidate for the new Bachelor program?

“The ideal candidate is someone who has already acquired decent competence in quantitative studies, who likes mathematics and has a decent knowledge of basic statistics but even more importantly someone who has a lot of curiosity and a keen interest in theory, because the approach to AI is strongly theoretical. This program is method-based, so you need to like a methodological approach.”

  • Mr. Rector, how do you see Bocconi ten years from now?

“Bocconi has started a journey and it’s incredible how we’ve been able to adapt to the changes in time and to be ahead of the game over the years. Ten years from now I wish Bocconi would be the number one in social science, a point of reference clearly in Europe but hopefully globally. And I wish for Bocconi students to become the ambassadors of a society in which the topic of sustainability, which has been peripheral up until a few years ago, is becoming more important. I wish that Bocconi could become a point of refence in that area too, with our students leading society. As my colleagues in the US like to say, I think students should “learn, earn and return”.”

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