Initiative to establish a
European Lab for Learning & Intelligent Systems
We are at a crossroads where
(1) machine learning is at the heart of a technological and societal artificial
intelligence revolution involving multiple sister disciplines,
1 with large implications
for the future competitiveness of Europe,
(2) Europe is not keeping up: most of the top labs, as well as the top places to do a
PhD, are located in North America; moreover, AI investments in China and North
America are significantly larger than in Europe, and
(3) the distinction between academic research and industrial labs is vanishing,
with a significant part of the basic research now being done in industry (with
substantial research freedom, and higher salaries), rapid commercialization of results,
and academic institutions worldwide struggling to retain their best scientists (with
negative implications not only for research but also for the education of future talent).
This further weakens Europe since all of the companies doing top research in this
field are controlled from the US (or China) – many European companies whose future
business crucially depends on AI are not perceived as competitive.
There are still a few machine learning & perception research hotspots in Europe
that play in the international top league. Virtually all of the top people in those places
are continuously being pursued for recruitment by US companies. Even if we only
wanted to retain these centers, we would need to increase our investments in line with
what other countries are doing. To strengthen our position, we need to build on what
is strong in Europe, think big and have the courage to try new models.2 We believe
our best bet is for the outstanding centers in Europe to join forces.
European strength currently lies in its academic culture and well-educated
students. E.g., Cambridge and Zurich have top university departments in the field,
Tübingen has top Max Planck departments, and in France, we have a mixture of both
between the Paris universities (e.g., Ecole normale supérieure) and CNRS/INRIA.
Large US players have started research labs in those places, such as Amazon
(Cambridge, Tübingen), Apple (Cambridge), Facebook (Paris), Google/Deepmind
(Zürich, Paris, London), Microsoft (Cambridge), Qualcomm (Amsterdam). While a
major motivation for these labs is the competition for local talent, the labs also
strongly contribute to the local ecosystems by rendering them more attractive for
students and researchers, and educating a generation of high-level professionals, some
of who subsequently form startups.
1 We use the term machine learning to include areas of AI that are strongly influenced and driven by
machine learning, such as much of computer vision, natural language and speech understanding, and parts
of robotics. 2 European governments are beginning to realize this, as shown by the recent establishment of the Alan
Turing Institute as well as the new French AI strategy
Countries like Canada and Japans are taking action to address the challenge of retaining top AI researchers; and
Canada’s Vector Institute (https://vectorinstitute.ai) is an exciting model of what can be done.
We should found a European Lab for Learning & Intelligent Systems (working
title; abbreviated as “ELLIS”), involving the very best European academics while
working together closely with basic researchers from industry.
The mission of ELLIS is to benefit Europe in two ways:
1. we want the best basic research to be performed in Europe, to enable Europe
to shape how machine learning and modern AI change the world, and
2. we want to have economic impact and create jobs in Europe, and believe this
is achieved by outstanding and free basic research, independent of industry
This is how to make ELLIS competitive:
– Outstanding facilities and computing infrastructure.
– It is an inter-governmental organization (like EMBL, the European Molecular
Biology Laboratory). France and Germany may be (the) initial partner countries, the
Netherlands would be an excellent addition, but ELLIS is not limited to the EU; in
particular, there are outstanding centers of excellence in Switzerland, the UK, and
Israel, and we would benefit from including them.
– ELLIS comprises labs in the partner countries at the top academic sites for
machine learning & perception research. This allows jump-starting ELLIS by means
of (short or long term) co-affiliation and/or secondment of outstanding academics.
Excellent researchers across each country may be connected via fellowships, and the
links to local research institutions are vital for ELLIS to thrive.
– It runs programs for visiting researchers (both from academia and industry), as
well as workshops and summer schools for students, academics, and industrial
participants. Mobility is facilitated by housing, childcare, and (international) schools
at each site.
– It aims at building a European PhD and MSc program in cooperation with degreegranting universities. The participating degree-granting institutions will allow and
encourage students in their MS and PhD programs to spend time in at least two
ELLIS partner sites, with no additional tuition charge, and co-supervision from
researchers at these sites. ELLIS will provide fellowships to support this program.
– ELLIS researchers can split their time between ELLIS and local university or
industry research labs (creating an incentive for industry to co-locate).
Collaboration with industry is encouraged and structured using transparent and simple
IP rules that ensure that public funding is used in a way that benefits the public. Joint
research involving industry and public funding is openly publishable.
– ELLIS researchers can found startups based on IP they generate. ELLIS does not
aim to optimize short-term licensing income, and rather aims at sustained economic
impact in Europe. To this end, it owns a modest share in those startups and claims no
further rights as long as the startup is formed in a partner country, thus generating
downstream impact (including jobs) in Europe. ELLIS supports startups in terms of
(a) generous leave-of-absence rules, (b) temporary use of infrastructure, and (c) help
with administration including legal/financial advice.
– ELLIS does not need a large headcount for personnel initially (since it strictly only
recruits top notch academics), but it does need a long term funding commitment
including a plan how the funding ramps up. Each local lab could aim to reach at least
the scale of a major Max Planck institute, i.e., around 100 Mio EUR for infrastructure
and an annual budget increasing to 30 Mio EUR during the first ten years.
– Existing funding structures are too slow: ELLIS should start in 2018 and the core
of such an initiative could be formed by at least France and Germany (e.g.,
CNRS/INRIA and Max Planck).3 There is interest among top researchers not only in
those countries, but also in Switzerland, the UK, the Netherlands, and Israel.
Institutional links between some of the sites already exist (joint centers and joint PhD
– In addition to researchers and faculty from the partner institutions, ELLIS will offer
permanent employment to outstanding individuals early on and train them in both
academic and non-academic skills. These researchers will receive an adjunct faculty
position from one of the partner institutions. They will also be offered a complete
career path within ELLIS, paralleling those found in tenure-track programs, from the
equivalent of the rank of assistant professor to that of a full professor. This will be a
major step towards avoiding brain drain to the US.
– ELLIS’ unique characteristic is outstanding academic quality as measured for
instance by publications in the leading competitive conferences of the field.5 It does
not preclude other national and international activities that focus mainly on applied
research and industry cooperation, but ELLIS’ pure mission of excellence in basic
research must not be compromised.
– There is no shortage of funding for AI research, but it is extremely hard to attract
outstanding researchers. However, it is the quality of the individual researchers that
determines the strength of the overall lab, and only top people act as true talent
magnets. US institutions and companies have recognized that money spent on those
people pays off in multiple ways. In Europe, there are currently only few types of
academic positions that allow us to attract such top people, e.g., Max Planck
directorships or full professorships at ETH.
Our only chance to attract such people to ELLIS is to offer positions with outstanding
academic freedom and visibility (in cooperation with Max Planck, ENS, CNRS,
3 Their recent activities of MPI-IS/Cyber Valley and PRAIRIE already plan to collaborate. 4 http://learning-systems.org/, http://mlg.eng.cam.ac.uk/?page_id=1458 5 The 2018 Report of the German Government’s Commission of Experts for Research and Innovation (EFI) lists
Tübingen/Stuttgart as the leading site in Germany in this respect, followed by Berlin/Potsdam. Similar arguments
can be made for all other sites taking part in the present initiative.
INRIA, as well as participating top universities), with top packages.6
– Since the field holds great economical promise, there may be competition of
different sites to be home to an ELLIS lab. The only criterion should be academic
– ELLIS will perform fundamental research in modern AI, attract top international
industry research labs, and spawn startups that will become major players in the
future. It will thus drive excellence in Europe’s research and use of machine
intelligence to foster economic development and improve the lives of people.
– ELLIS will be a top employer in machine intelligence research, on par with
Berkeley, Stanford, CMU, and MIT. It will also be a world class venue to get trained
in the field: in conjunction with universities, it will develop a highly attractive
European PhD program, and it will strive to retain the best graduates within ELLIS
to groom them into the next generation of senior scientists.
– Taken together, this means that Europe will be able to play a major role in the
scientific and societal revolution that is underway. The first and second industrial
revolution not only transformed technology but also led to fundamental societal
changes. These changes were managed by European democracies and values. The
current revolution may be equally significant. Europe should benefit from it and
European values should help shape its impact.
The undersigned urge their governments to work towards the above goal.
April 24, 2018
Francis Bach, Inria, Paris
Matthias Bethge, University of Tübingen
6 EMBL offers attractive packages that come with special conditions
(https://www.embl.de/jobs/work-at-embl/), but the field of machine learning & perception is more
competitive. Co-appointments with industry will help significantly.
Zoubin Ghahramani, Cambridge University
Thomas Hofmann, ETH Zürich
Andreas Krause, ETH Zürich
Cordelia Schmid, Inria, Grenoble
Bernhard Schölkopf, Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, Tübingen /
Yair Weiss, Hebrew University, Jerusalem
Max Welling, University of Amsterdam
We acknowledge (without implying endorsement in detail) a number of individuals
who have been crucially involved in discussions pertaining to the present initiative:
Michael Black (Cyber Valley and Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems,
Tübingen / Stuttgart)
Joachim Buhmann (Liaison ETH, Zürich)
Jean Ponce (Inria and liaison PRAIRIE, Paris)
Andrew Blake (AI consultant)
Olivier Bousquet (Google, Zürich)
Lino Guzzella (President ETH Zurich)
Ralf Herbrich (Amazon, Berlin)
Marc Schoenauer (Inria, Saclay)
Francois Sillion (President, INRIA)
Martin Stratmann (President, Max Planck Society)
Cédric Villani (Head of the French AI commission)
Richard Zemel (Research Director, Vector Institute, Toronto)

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