Pauliina Ilmonen: Data scientists are the superheroes and supervillains of our time

Data science and artificial intelligence are here to stay, and companies should harness it to maintain a competitive edge, believes Associate Professor Pauliina Ilmonen, one of Aalto University Executive Education’s lecturers on data and artificial intelligence.

Photo: Mikko Raskinen / Aalto University

Annika Rautakoura, 02.12.2021

The quantity of data and how it is used has come a long way in the last decades. When Aalto University’s Associate Professor Pauliina Ilmonen was deciding on which field to pursue, mathematics was always at the top of the list. It was only later that she realized how important mathematics is for the world – and the range of ways it can be used for good.

I find it hugely important that everyone knows how to read statistics."

Now Ilmonen studies statistics at Aalto, developing methods, such as extreme value theory, and researches cancer genetics, among other things. Her lectures on data and analytics at Aalto University Executive Education shed light on the importance of data analysis and artificial intelligence for companies.

“I find it hugely important that everyone knows how to read statistics, not just data scientists and mathematicians,” Ilmonen says.

Importance of statistics

Being able to utilize data is definitely a competitive benefit for companies, Ilmonen believes. It all starts with data. Years ago, a pocket calculator was a miracle. “This is what artificial intelligence often is: layers of calculation built on top of each other.”

These days, we live in a world with an abundance of data at our fingertips. We collect data and do modeling to learn about our world, our history and even predict the future. Companies’ capacity to store and save data has changed in a fundamental way.

“We can store data in huge quantities, but all this data is useless if it simply rests in a database,” says Ilmonen. “It only becomes useful when we use and analyze it.”

Competitive edge through data

What companies should start with is examining the what, where and who of data. In other words, what data does the company have, where is it, and who is using it.

Data only becomes useful when we use and analyze it."

Only then is it possible to ask the right questions of how data and artificial intelligence applications can be used for business. Should a production line be optimized, for example? Is it possible to automate certain tasks, such as payment?

“Establishing dialogue is key,” Ilmonen states. This means dialogue between the persons analyzing data and the rest of the company, between departments, and most importantly, with experts on the applications utilizing data and/or artificial intelligence.

Predicting the future

Not only are statistics important for understanding the past and optimizing the present, data scientists have, for years, predicted the future. “This is their job – being behind that crystal ball.”

This has to do with structures of dependency. We can say that previously A has led to B, and this is repeated over and over. While there is always a margin of error, predicting is so much easier now, because we can store more data than ever before and our computing capacity has taken huge leaps. We have gone beyond that pocket calculator and abacus.

AI is a huge help in medical applications."

“This enables quite formidable paradigms for predicting the future.”

There are numerous fields where artificial intelligence has great potential. “AI is a huge help in medical applications. I believe that this will increase in the future,” says Ilmonen.

Humans hold the keys

Humans are the ones who can use modern technology to optimize business and improve the world. Decision-making cannot be left to technology. “Humans are always in charge, when it comes to data analysis and artificial intelligence. This should never be forgotten,” Ilmonen says.

Being data-critical is also our responsibility. Recruitment processes, for example, already draw on artificial intelligence to comb data and select candidates. These mechanisms are a reflection of human processes. If humans have applied processes that discriminate, this will be passed on to automated processes as well.

“We need to be critical of the databases we use.” This means, for example, recognizing when statistics are being used for manipulation.

This also poses great opportunities for recognizing and improving human-made processes.

Looking beyond risks

Ilmonen herself sees the data-intensive world more through opportunities than threats. Looking back in history, she believes that the world has already become a better place.

Humans are always in charge, when it comes to data analysis and artificial intelligence."

Right now, AI is used, for example, to ease conflict situations, monitor people’s movements for different purposes and influence people on social media – in good and bad. There are things Ilmonen would not trust AI with. “I don’t shy away from risks, but there are limits. I would not hand over the fate of my investment portfolio to artificial intelligence.”

When it comes to risks around AI and data, it is not just a question of legislation, but also morals.

“Data scientists are the superheroes and supervillains of our day. They have the power and responsibility to do great things.” The least you can do is know how to discuss issues with them.

Pauliina Ilmonen is Associate Professor in Statistics at Aalto University School of Science. She is teaching in several data-related programs of Aalto EE and Aalto PRO. The new program Certificate in Data and Analytics starts in March 2022. Read more

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