Meet Thomas Gärtner, Our New Professor for Machine Learning
Starting from February 2020, Thomas Gärtner is setting up the new research unit Machine Learning. We visited him in his (still empty) office.*
After working as a researcher at the University of Bonn and the Fraunhofer Institute of Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems IAIS, Thomas Gärtner served as a Professor of Data Science at the University of Nottingham. “Slightly motivated by Brexit,” as he puts it, he is now delighted to be in Vienna. “The position at TU Wien interested me right from the start, as TU Wien is renowned for its Computer Science department.” He also feels comfortable with the Austrian-German academic system.
Thomas is now ready to build everything up tabula rasa. “Starting with three PhD positions and a postdoc is a good beginning. Recruiting some more people would be better as it gives you flexibility when projects come and go.” Talking about starting from scratch, he is now the emperor of over 200 square meters of empty office space without phone and internet, eagerly awaiting the arrival of his colleagues. Hopefully the job interviews for PhD candidates, secretary and technicians will soon conclude and new recruits will fill in the space. His research unit has been in existence only since 1 February 2020. “I have the feeling things are moving slowly, but looking at the schedule and the big picture, we are moving at a good pace. I really wish I had a phone and internet – well, the internet at least!”
Big Plans Ahead
But soon, he will not have time to contemplate over the perforated ceiling looming over his head. Gärtner is looking forward to collaborating with his colleagues inside and outside the faculty (“I want brilliant people to join me”). He has plans for interdisciplinary research on theoretical machine learning algorithms. “But I don’t want to create just the mathematical constructs, I also want to see them applied in the real world. That is why I want to work with colleagues in such fields as biology, chemistry, and medicine.” With the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham he is going to focus on research into an alternative to antibiotics with bacteriophages.
If he had to describe his work in 90 seconds, it would go like this: “I would say, coming up with new algorithms that fit better to realistic situations. We have to sometimes make strong theoretical assumptions, that don’t always hold in practice. How can we bridge the gap between what is theoretically possible and what is practically required?”
“After school, I wanted to become either a clocksmith or a theoretical mathematician. Since I could not decide, and Computer Science has aspects of both, that is proving things and also getting my hands “dirty” with programming, I ended up with Computer Science. During my studies, I was fascinated by the creative freedom and the data out there, so I took one of the first Masters in Machine Learning. In Bristol, we had four students at the time, and I got so fascinated by the topic that I stuck with it”. Thomas Gärtner is also very keen on mentoring students: “Research is my passion, but teaching is a big part of it. The teaching aspect of seeing the students learning and maturing, is so rewarding”.
Are there any challenges in his field? Yes, there are. “There is always the danger that Machine Learning is over hyped, sometimes people get too excited, and sci-fi gets mixed in. It is successful, and there is fundamental progress. It will, for sure, change the world as we see and know it, and it will change jobs, too”. But for Gärtner, “AI is a tool, and tools can be abused.” So robots are not taking over the world soon, he is convinced: “Far from it, if ever. They will make our lives easier, as tools like a hammer or knife tend to make our lives easier”.
*The interview took place in February 2020.