21.5. 2015 Kuukauden kasvo

Ion Petre: Digital transition is an opportunity for all

Ion Petre, Director of Turku Centre for Computer Science, wishes to place the focus of co-operation between universities on the opportunities generated by the digitalization of our society. This calls for new kind of thinking, multi-disciplinary co-operation and a great deal of creativity – as well as speed.

Ion Petre is Professor of Computer Science at Åbo Akademi University, the Director of Turku Centre for Computer Science (TUCS), and a former Research Fellow of the Academy of Finland. According to his view, jobs will continue to move out of Finland. This is inevitable and it will push the workforce to transition from routine work to more demanding tasks.

“Digitalization is a quiet revolution that is progressing quickly. The new opportunities catalysed by computing revolutionise both the working life, and our education system. Everything is changing fast, because new and better ways to do things are being created all the time. Now it’s important to notice that Finland’s privileged position as a country of high-tech expertise is not to be taken for granted, because know-how also advances quickly in the developing countries”, he says.

New opportunities need to be found

Easy access to information and education through the Internet has made the world smaller. For example, the online courses of Harvard University can be followed anywhere in the world, so people in developing countries get access to the same cutting-edge knowledge and technology as people in the Western world.

“Finland has to find the opportunities for generating new business stemming from the developments in computing; otherwise we are at a risk of becoming marginalised. In TUCS for example we currently focus on new modes of operation so that the co-operation between different disciplines can be increased further; a new strategy is currently in planning. In addition, university teaching has to be developed towards incorporating computing as an essential skill for all”, Prof. Petre says.

In his view, Finland’s strengths are creativity and networking, which should be improved further. Turku in particular has the advantage of a joint campus area of the local universities.

“I think that the important aspects to the education of our students include more than just the content of the teaching; they will have to get more content throughout their careers for example from a Harvard online course. It’s extremely important to get to know other students and create a lifelong network through the university. I stress to the students that they need to be receptive to new ways of working, because nobody knows what the world will be like 50 years from now, when they will retire from the workforce.”

A good example of a transformative field is that of artificial intelligence, that has been researched for over 40 years and great progress has been made. Computational systems are able to learn nowadays the humans’ ways of working. You can see routine applications of this field, e.g. in online shops that give sometimes frighteningly apt recommendations for new purchases based on your shopping history.

The enchantment of mathematics and computation

Ion Petre came from Romania to Finland for doctoral studies in the University of Turku 18 years ago, because he wanted access to top research and education. Among the professors of the University of Turku he found a familiar name, Arto Salomaa, who had written textbooks used at the University of Bucharest.

“I was already in a top university, so that was not a reason to come, but I was particularly interested in combining mathematics and computation, a subject Prof. Salomaa had been researching. He was also one of the founders of TUCS, and is now a lifetime Academician, a title that can be held by only 12 people at a time in Finland.”

Prof. Petre’s academic career progressed in five-year cycles, first with a doctoral dissertation in the University of Turku, then in Åbo Akademi University and at the Academy of Finland. Currently he is both a Professor of Computer Science at Åbo Akademi University and the Director of TUCS.

“My work is divided into three areas: teaching, research and administration, so there’s a lot of work to do. Our research is interdisciplinary, but the boundaries should be removed, because different branches of science benefit each other a great deal, and computation is involved in everything”, Prof. Petre says.

Computer technology can, for example, benefit drug research in the analysis of big data using super computers. It is useful e.g. in the treatment of rare diseases, as research data from different countries can be quickly combined and processed. Computer science can learn e.g. from biology about cell mechanisms and the collaboration of different cells, and utilise that in the planning of new types of data processing mechanisms.

Learning the Finnish language

Ion Petre lives with his family in the Yli-Maaria district of Turku in a detached house, the building of which he commissioned. It was completed in record time, in just nine months.

“I’m very happy with the house, everything went fine: the house, the garage and storage building. I hired professional builders to do everything, which was the only choice, as I didn’t know any builders. I did learn Finnish during the project, because I couldn’t communicate with the builders in English. I can recommend building a house if you want to learn Finnish!”

The professor’s most important pastime is his family. His shared hobbies with his two sons (aged 12 and 9 years) are football and mathematics.

Text and photos: Anne Kortela

Ion Petre

  • Born in 1974 in Romania
  • Professor of Computer Science, Åbo Akademi University, Finland, 2010–
  • Research Fellow of the Academy of Finland, 2005–2010
  • Postdoctoral researcher, Department of Computer Science, Åbo Akademi University, 2002–2005
  • Docent in Computer Science (Bioinformatics) at Åbo Akademi University, 2007
  • PhD in Mathematics, University of Turku, Finland, 2002

Administrative responsibilities in universities and research organisations:

  • Director of Turku Centre for Computer Science (TUCS), 2015–
  • Head of the Computer Science programs at Department of IT, Åbo Akademi University, 2010–
  • Member of the board of Faculty of Science and Engineering, Åbo Akademi University, 2015–2016
  • Member of the board of Department of IT, Åbo Akademi University, 2013–2014
  • Vice-director of Turku Centre for Computer Science, 2011–2014
  • Member of the national committee for the evaluation and the ranking of computer science university education and research in Romania, 2011–2015