Artificial Intelligence: More Than Meets the Eye.
Artificial intelligence is beyond a doubt one of the most, if not the most, exciting areas of computer science. The Slovenian Jozef Stefan Institute (IJS) plays an important role in this field of academic research with far reaching practical applications.
The AI department of the institute led by Dr Dunja Mladenić might not be so known to the general public, yet its data mining solutions were used by global media giants like The New York Times and Bloomberg. Take the IJS's latest product Event Registry and its spin-off company Quintelligence. A unique tool for real-time collection and analysis of news published around the globe, the system analyses news coming from over 100,000 sources in different languages. Sources also include blogs and tweets. A user of Event Registry can track how news spreads around the world, the development of the story and the context in which it appears. The system allows for exploring of trends as well as making predictions on how news would spread. It is an invaluable tool for media publishers and companies alike. For now the system can only analyse text based sources, but researchers are planning to develop an extension which could follow news on television.
Developed with the help of European funding, Event registry is an entirely Slovenian product based on almost two decades of research. A few years ago the same group of researchers developed a system they called the NYT Miner - a data mining solution developed to follow the behaviour of readers of the New York Times website. Other areas of the IJS's AI department include machine learning, semantic technologies, social network analysis and natural language processing and technologies. The department collaborates with a number of international academic institutions and companies. One of the companies closely linked with the IJS's AI laboratory is a US company Cycorp, “a leading provider of semantic technologies that bring a new level of intelligence and common sense reasoning to a wide variety of software applications.” Cycorp is developing a project named Cyc - the ambitious project, the ultimate goal of which is to enable AI applications to perform human-like reasoning, was started back in 1984 by Texan computer scientist Doug Lenat. Cycorp’s only company outside of Texas is located in Ljubljana and has close links to the IJS. Cycorp Europe is led by Michael Witbrock, who is also Cycorp’s vice president of research. Witbrock is also chief technology officer of another IJS spin off, a company called Envigence. Based in Solkan, near the Italian border, Envigence develops environmental intelligence systems - to be used in smart communities, for example.
While key personnel from Cycorp are active in Slovenia, local computer scientists are working in leading global research institutions. Jure Leskovec, an assistant professor of computer science at Stanford University, is one of the leading experts on mining and modelling of large social and information networks like Facebook or Twitter. In simple terms, Leskovec uses huge datasets generated by social networks as raw material to analyse and identify fundamental patterns of human behaviour. His models can, for example, predict which news could become viral. Not long ago Leskovec and his colleague Julian McAuley developed an algorithm that automatically divides Facebook friends into different social circles. In 2015 he co-authored a research paper on antisocial behaviour in online discussion communities. A group of researchers including Leskovec developed a model which could predict patterns and identify online troublemakers (so called trolls) in advance. At 34 years of age Leskovec is the youngest to bear the prestigious title of Slovenian Ambassador of Science. On the web he is also known as “Mr Context”. In his words, he uses terabytes of data as a telescope or “a sensor into human life”: “what wasn’t visible before is visible now”.
Slovenian pharmaceutical industry remains strong
Slovenian pharmaceutical industry remains to be one of the country's leading exporters. The main two pharmaceutical companies, Krka (Rank 5 on this year's edition of TOP300) and Lek (Rank 7), are among the largest and most profitable Slovenian companies. The two arch rivals in Slovenian pharmacy share a number of common characteristics: they are similar in size, financially very successful with strong R&D departments, both are generic drug producers with a global presence and special emphasis on Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia. In one aspect they significantly differ: while Krka is a stockholder company listed in Warsaw’s stock exchange, Lek is a part of global pharmaceutical giant Novartis, more precisely its generic drug group Sandoz.
Krka, located in Novo mesto (home town of another Slovenian exporting champion Revoz, a part of the Group Renault), has for years been financially the most successful company in Slovenia. While its revenues reached 1.2 billion euros in 2014, the company posted net profits of 144 million euros – more than any other Slovenian business. No other Slovenian stock performs as well as Krka’s – its value grew steadily during the recent financial crisis. 94 per cent of Krka’s sales are made outside of Slovenia. Krka’s largest single market is Russia (31 per cent share of total revenues), yet growth is highest in Western Europe, in Germany in particular (55 per cent revenue growth in 2014).
The value of Krka’s investments last year reached 14.6 per cent of its total revenues. A significant part of the investments went into Krka’s own R&D, one of the strongest in Slovenia. In most of the areas Krka outperforms its Ljubljana based rival Lek. Yet R&D is the field where Krka could be behind Lek. Novartis invested heavily in its new Slovenian subsidiary, in particular in its laboratories and development centres. Only between 2003 and 2010 Novartis invested 900 million euros in Lek, and one half of the sum went into R&D. Lek’s role in the Sandoz group is, among others, to act as a global development centre for technologically demanding products and technologies, and a Sandoz competence centre in the field of biosimilar products. This field represents state of the art technology in the pharmaceutical industry. Sandoz is a global leader in biosimilar drugs and recently managed to get the very first approval for the biosimilar drug (filgastrim) from the US FDA agency. Lek’s researchers played a crucial role in developing the drug.
The background of the success of both Slovenian pharmaceutical companies is strong academic research, carried out by the country's two leading institutes, Institute Josef Stefan and the National Institute of Chemistry, and the University of Ljubljana. Both institutes have strong focus on biochemistry and biotechnology and work hand in hand with the industry. Strong academic research also creates fertile ground for small innovative companies - and also for foreign investment. Biogen Slovenia, for example, is a daughter company of leading global biotech company Biogen: the Slovenian subsidiary develops medicine to help people with multiple sclerosis.
Overall, there are 24 pharmaceutical companies registered in Slovenia with Krka and Lek making over 95 per cent of the total revenues in the industry. The rest of the companies are very small - most have less than 10 employees. Some, like Marifarm or Galex, are slightly larger with up to 50 employees and a small production focused mostly on generic drug and self-medication products. Among the micro companies, however, there are a few interesting start-ups. Just to give one example: young company Jafral develops bacteriophages - a potential major break-through in pharmacy. True, these companies are tiny and to a large degree unknown. But let’s not forget: 60 years ago Krka was nothing but a small lab with few employees and no revenues to speak of.
New Slovenian design: it’s all about wood
Over the last half century, the international event Biennial of Design (BIO) has evolved from a traditional exhibition of designed objects - being the first such biennial in Europe in 1963 - to a completely new format more in line with the demands of the 21st century. Over the years BIO has contributed significantly to the development of Slovenian design, with its influence being especially strong on the latest generation of designers, who are globally oriented, proficient in use of Kickstarter and other social networks, and increasingly likely to use traditional materials and methods in their work.
This year’s BIO is held under the title “Faraway, So Close”, and focuses on Slovenia’s main potential, at least in the eyes of the curators, its landscape. In the words of the organizers, BIO is ”structured as a long-term collaborative process, where teams of designers and multidisciplinary agents develop alternatives to established systems”. The focus has thus shifted from traditional designed object to the use of design “as a tool to question and improve our daily life”. This year the curators have sent international teams of designers to some of the typical landscapes of Slovenia: the woods, the karst underground, mining areas, the plains of the Pannonian Basin, the coast, and the Alps. The event thus takes place in seven locations, not only in Ljubljana, but also in Grosuplje, Kočevje, Kobarid, Lendava, Trbovlje and Piran. The teams of designers have cooperated with local organizations and businesses to explore “new models and strategies for tourism, for marketing and presenting attractions, for food production, and for the development and growth of new activities.”
There is little doubt that the biennial has contributed greatly to the development of Slovenian design, and in recent years we have seen a real flourishing in this area, as a new generation of Slovenian designers who adopt novel approaches has become increasingly visible. These members of the new wave of Slovenian design share many common characteristics, and perhaps most noticeable of all is a focus on wood, combine new forms or usages with traditional materials and techniques.
Ribrand, for example, is a modern brand of wooden products preserving the woodworking traditions of the Ribnica Valley, and combining these with modern forms and technologies. Toni Kancilja’s Istra composition is inspired by traditional drawers and cabinets from the Slovenian part of Istria, and is made of massive pieces of walnut or wild cherry tree. Tok Tok creates wooden furniture in close cooperation with Slovenian craftsmen, using locally-sourced materials, while not being limited to traditional furniture. For example, their highly original wooden speaker for smartphones, called Trobla, amplifies sound without electronic components or batteries. Another young designer, Luka Bassanesse, has created both traditionally inspired furniture, as well as an iPhone wireless charging case and a new shape for kitchen blenders.
“Kredenca”, a kind of kitchen cabinet, were once a central element in Slovenian homes, and the designers Matic Lenaršič and Jernej Koželj have adapted this traditional piece of furniture to meet the needs of contemporary consumers. Their solution uses harmonica pleats and design elements drawn from origami, and has won awards in both Slovenia and abroad.
The Wilsonic Design team has also collected several prestigious awards since it was founded in the year 2000. They cooperate with top Slovenian companies, like Adria Mobil, Hidria, Tam and Kolektor, while their design solutions have been applied in products ranging from electronic roulette machines to airport buses, caravans, and medical examination tables. They have received two Red Dot Awards for Product Design, one in 2012 for their Googy rocking horse, and another in 2014 for Hidria’s high performance fans. They note that the Googy soft rocking horse is “a designer's reply to the challenge of conventional rocking horses, which can be quite unforgiving to the clumsy approaches of toddlers and younger children.” This item is produced by Oblazinjeno pohištvo Novak, and received a gold medal along with being ranked by Zero Design magazine as among the six best featured products shown at the Milan Design Week.
The wooden buildings created by young Slovenian architects also often receive awards and are featured in international design magazines, like Dezeen. The youngest designers, however, are still waiting for wider recognition, and to speed up the process they now turn to social networks and, most of all, the Kickstarter funding platform. A typical example is the ONDU range of wooden pinhole cameras. This lo-tech approach to photography was presented on Kickstarter in 2013 with the goal of raising 10,000 US dollars, and it ended up with almost 110,000.