Swedish AI research attracts superstars

Sara Mazur leads the nation’s single largest research programme. The Wallenberg AI, Autonomous Systems and Software Program (WASP) is a multi-billion kronor investment financed by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation alongside universities and industry actors, and aims to raise Sweden’s status in AI, autonomous systems and software. Cooperation between academia and industry is the success factor. The goal is 600 PhD students and 80 recruitments by 2030.

WASP, which was launched in 2015, is currently educating more than 300 PhD students and around a hundred industrial PhD students from companies.
“Our first 30 or so have already received their PhDs,” says Mazur, Chair of WASP. She was involved in initiating this major initiative from the start while serving as head of research at Ericsson.

Some of those receiving their PhDs have gone into industry, some are pursuing post doc studies and the industrial PhDs are back with their respective companies.

“A strong driver for me is ensuring that the research we and others are funding at universities benefits Sweden. The purpose of the programme is to build knowledge and skills for the benefit of Swedish industry – and the best way to transfer knowledge is through talented researchers.”

An important aspect of the programme is attracting international researchers to this country. Mazur believes that it’s possible to attract superstars to Sweden.

“Many said that it would be really difficult. But we’ve managed to recruit nine top researchers. If we only had four we would have considered that a good result. One key factor was the large WASP network and the strong connections to Swedish industry.”

The research programme is currently involved in industry collaborations with more than 50 Swedish companies and graduate schools at Linköping University, the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Chalmers University of Technology, Lund University and Umeå University. International partners are Stanford, Berkeley, MIT and NTU in Singapore. Recently Aalto University in Finland joined as well.

“We had no partnerships in Europe. Aalto is at the forefront and is an excellent partner for Sweden and Swedish industry.”

AI is the section of the programme growing the fastest.
“We have consciously focused on strengthening AI through international recruitment and mathematics for AI. We saw that Sweden lacked sufficient competency in the field – both in education and research,” she says.

Industry has expressed concern that Sweden will fall behind in this field.

“Things are looking much better today. This was also the reason we received a donation of an extra billion from the foundation in 2017. AI is one of the keys to what we want to achieve.”

Looking back over the past five years, what are you most proud of?

“That we succeeded in establishing the graduate school and that it is highly attractive, that we’ve involved so many companies in the initiative and that we’ve managed to attract top researchers to Sweden.”

Are there many women in the PhD programme?

“Unfortunately the percentage is low but it is improving. We’re clearly moving in the right direction. The section of the programme with the most women is mathematics. We’re being particularly active in trying to attract women.”

Mazur sees herself as a role model. She wants to show other women that they can make a career in a technology-intensive sector without being a super nerd.

“I get around a lot and talk to young women at different levels – from school kids to upper secondary students.”

Her own interest in technology was sparked early on.

“When I was young I was interested in and good at maths and physics. I was also curious about how things worked. My dad had an interest in technology and we liked to take things apart and try to fix them. This was the foundation for my interest in engineering and by the age of 11 or 12 I’d already decided I wanted to attend a university of technology.”

She attended KTH, did postgraduate studies, completed a dissertation in plasma physics and then became an associate professor.

“I was thinking of going on to a career in academia, becoming a professor. But things turned out a little differently.”

Instead she started working at Ericsson at the age of 23. She worked there on 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G. She served as Head of Research for the last six years during the time Ericsson was developing the 5G concept and starting to standardise the technology.

“It’s a lot of fun and very exciting that the technology I helped to develop is being used throughout society and industry. And that everyone will benefit from it.”

Curiosity is still what drives her – the curiosity she had as a 12 year-old girl.

“New technologies are emerging all the time and there are new things to understand. But also new ways for people, nature and large systems to work.”

SARA MAZUR

Age: 55

Education: MSc Engineering KTH 1989, PhD from the same institution in 1994 with a dissertation on plasma physics. Associated professor at KTH 1995.

Career: Started working at Ericsson in 1995; between 2012 and 2018 Vice President and Head of Research. Since 2020 Chair of the Wallenberg research programme WASP (Vice Chair from the start in 2015). On the boards of Investor, Saab, Nobel Prize Outreach, etc.

Other information: Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences 2007, honorary doctorate from Luleå University of Technology 2015.

Sara Mazur D.Eng. is awarded the Academy's Gold Medal for her outstanding contributions as a leader for research and innovation in industry and academia, and for her strong commitment to collaboration in areas of significant importance for the development of society.