Photos: Tetra Images / Alamy Stock Photo, zVg

A respon­si­ble approach to tech­no­logy and arti­fi­cial intelligence

The Hasler Foun­da­tion is stee­ped in tradi­tion, but this year it laun­ched a programme to explore the ques­tion of respon­si­ble arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. In 2020, a year hard-hit by Covid, it offe­red one-off funding to purchase 1,381 devices that helped school­child­ren to conti­nue their lessons from home.

Arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI) is play­ing an ever more important role in our lives – but we do not always notice it. ‘If we pass more and more decis­i­ons and work to compu­ters, we want these tasks to be dealt with in line with our ethi­cal expec­ta­ti­ons and values,’ says Matthias Kaisers­werth, mana­ging direc­tor of the Hasler Foun­da­tion. ‘We want to be able to justify them.’ At the moment, many of the AI algo­rithms curr­ently available do not yet meet these condi­ti­ons. ‘And they should not be used in that form,’ says Kaisers­werth, making his stance clear. This is one reason why the Hasler Foun­da­tion is support­ing rese­arch into AI, and why it has laun­ched the new ‘Respon­si­ble AI’ project. IT rese­ar­chers at Swiss univer­si­ties were able to apply to the project: 83 short appli­ca­ti­ons had been recei­ved by the dead­line. Over­all, the foun­da­tion will support 10 to 12 of them, esti­ma­tes Kaisers­werth. ‘We want to use Respon­si­ble AI to support rese­arch that focu­ses on how we can get AI algo­rithms to make decis­i­ons fairly and in line with our codes of ethics.’ The new programme runs along­side the ongo­ing funding programme, start-up finan­cing and the award of scholarships.

From a corpo­rate foun­da­tion to a funding foundation

The Hasler Foun­da­tion was foun­ded in 1948 as the Stif­tung Hasler-Werke. Its foun­der, Gustav Hasler, took over his father’s company in 1900, aged 22. The factory made tele­pho­nes and Hasler went on to expand it into an inter­na­tio­nal tele­coms firm. He had no child­ren, so he left a large part of his assets, inclu­ding the facto­ries, to the foun­da­tion. ‘The goal was to use the divi­dends to support rese­arch and educa­tion rela­ting to tele­phony and tele­gra­phy within Switz­er­land,’ explains Kaisers­werth. The foun­da­tion was inten­ded to play a role in further buil­ding up the rele­vant exper­tise within Switz­er­land, while also ensu­ring the contin­ued opera­tion of the Hasler works and bene­fits for employee. After the merger to form Ascom in the 1990s, the foun­da­tion sold its holdings in the company. In 2004, it amen­ded its deed of foun­da­tion, turning the corpo­rate foun­da­tion into a funding foun­da­tion. Kaisers­werth adds: ‘And the name also chan­ged to the Hasler Foun­da­tion – as it was alre­ady popu­larly known.’

«We want to be able to justify decis­i­ons.»
Matthias Kaisers­werth

Rese­arch and education

In 2009, the foun­da­tion chan­ged its purpose to align with the lived reality. ‘Since then, the Hasler Foun­da­tion has not only supported educa­tio­nal projects in tele­com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons tech­no­logy, but also those in infor­ma­tion tech­no­logy, which is beco­ming ever more important,’ says the mana­ging direc­tor. Since then, the foundation’s purpose has been to advance infor­ma­tion and commu­ni­ca­tion tech­no­logy (ICT) for the bene­fit of Switz­er­land as a place to think and work. ‘We think the foundation’s purpose is a highly accu­rate descrip­tion of the lived reality and in terms that are gene­ral enough to ensure that it will retain its vali­dity and rele­vance in the years to come,’ says Kaisers­werth. The foundation’s purpose of both rese­arch and educa­tion gives poten­tial syner­gies between the two. The Hasler Foun­da­tion funds endo­wed profes­sor­ships in compu­ter science educa­tion at teacher trai­ning univer­si­ties in Switz­er­land. ‘These profes­sor­ships teach pros­pec­tive IT teachers and they also carry out rese­arch to see how IT lessons can be didac­ti­cally struc­tu­red to ensure they make the maxi­mum impact,’ says Kaiserswerth.

Procu­re­ment of end devices

The importance of digi­ta­li­sa­tion in schools has become evident over the past few months. Kaisers­werth saw that many child­ren were not able to take part in distance lear­ning when their schools closed during lock­down. ‘Their schools were not able to give them devices and they did not have anything to use at home, or perhaps there was just one device for the whole family,’ he says. That’s why in April 2020 the Hasler Foun­da­tion laun­ched a special programme to provide devices in order that child­ren were able to conti­nue their lessons from home. It put forward CHF 800,000, enab­ling 1,381 devices to be funded for secon­dary school pupils.

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