Initiative to establish a European Lab for Learning & Intelligent Systems
We are at a crossroads where
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,
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
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.
There are some top university departments in the field, as well as some centers of excellence at Max Planck and CNRS/INRIA.
Large US players have started research labs in some of those places. 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
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:
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
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 interests.
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). While
the initial ELLIS letter only listed a small set of countries, scientists from other countries have
meanwhile expressed their interest. These are very much welcome, along with outstanding non-EU centers
of excellence in countries such as Switzerland, the UK, and Israel.
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
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 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
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, INRIA, as well as
participating top universities), with top packages.
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
ELLIS will perform
fundamental research in modern AI, attract top international industry research labs, and
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
. 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.
In the time since publishing the ELLIS open letter, we have received a large number of messages, most of which strongly support
the idea of establishing ELLIS. We below address some questions that came up across the board:
How can I support ELLIS?
First of all,
add your name to the list of endorsers. Also, feel free to speak up: talk to the press in
your country, talk to decision makers in your country, and tweet or blog about ELLIS. You may
also provide us with quotations that we can use, or send us a letter of endorsement. At a later
stage, we will seek donations and industry sponsorship.
How can we become an ELLIS site and/or how can my country become part of ELLIS?
Our plan is that each partner country provides their ELLIS facilities/infrastructure. Prerequisite
for participating in ELLIS are long-term guarantees for the below:
Partner countries may choose to embed ELLIS facilities into larger infrastructures including researchers employed by local/national
institutions, as long as such arrangements are deemed mutually beneficial. These researchers
will usually be recruited nationally, however, all ELLIS recruitments are done solely by ELLIS
to ensure a uniform bar of excellence across all of ELLIS (see below).
subscribing to ELLIS' overall philosophy, i.e., open basic research benefitting the public good, adoption of ELLIS governance
and excellence standards
outstanding lab/office space, provided free of charge (incl. for ELLIS visitors)
guest housing (for individuals and families), childcare and international schools, all free of charge for ELLIS visitors
local university courses are offered free of charge to visiting ELLIS students (including course credit)
How can I join an ELLIS lab?
ELLIS recruits fellows and students, and hosts visitors. By default, ELLIS positions are not associated with universities,
however, co-affiliations (e.g., as adjunct faculty) are encouraged.
Full-time appointments range from tenure-track positions right after the PhD
7 all the way to director positions (comparable to full professor). All full-time employees
must have their main work location in an ELLIS institute, and they are encouraged to spend time
as visitors at other ELLIS institutes. For tenure track appointments, the tenure decision is
taken within four years after recruitment. Senior positions are immediately tenured, unless they
are secondments from other positions, in which case limited term contracts can be offered.
Part-time fellows are outstanding researchers whose main employment is outside ELLIS (and anywhere
in Europe), either in an academic or industrial lab, and who normally spend at least one month
per year in an ELLIS institute. Part-time fellows are not necessarily tenured. IP generated during
their residence at ELLIS generally falls under the same rules as IP generated by full time ELLIS
members, and all results are openly publishable. If part-time fellows are in parallel working
with their home institution, exceptions will be made for such projects, provided the fields of
work are transparently defined and delineated.
PhD or MSc students working at ELLIS get their degree from a European university. PhD students
spend at least one year at an ELLIS site different from their main location (which will often,
but not necessarily, be an ELLIS site itself).
In addition, ELLIS hosts short- and long-term visitors. This includes the possibility of secondment,
during which researchers join ELLIS temporarily (paid either by ELLIS or their home institution).
We anticipate making heavy use of this at the beginning to help cold-start ELLIS.
ELLIS has an international advisory committee (AC) consisting of outstanding scholars in the
field who are not themselves members of ELLIS. ELLIS fellows and students are selected by means
of an international search process. For ELLIS fellows in any given country, the recruiting committee
consists of peer researchers located in other countries, the majority of which should be ELLIS
fellows (as well as, during the start-up phase, AC members). Since all candidates will thus be
evaluated by fellows located in other countries, this mechanism will ensure that the highest
quality standards are applied in recruiting. It will also ensure that no ELLIS fellow faces political
pressure from his national colleagues to be made an ELLIS fellow. The ELLIS initiative is open
to all researchers in Europe, but will hold everybody to a high bar. Since part-time fellows
can be located anywhere in Europe and sponsorship will be sought from the EU, we expect that
ELLIS will raise the level of excellence across all of Europe, having an effect akin to the outstanding
LMB (Learning in Machines and Brains) program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
The host country pays for local ELLIS infrastructure and running costs. For the fellows' program
and studentships, we will seek funding from the EU, host countries, foundations, and industry
What are the next steps?
A number of European countries are current engaged in discussing ELLIS on a national level.
In addition, we are in contact with the EU.
We intend to convene a meeting of scientists as well as of high level decision makers soon,
possibly during the ICML conference (Stockholm, July 11-13) or ECCV (Munich, September 11-13).
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.
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 is an exciting model of what can be done.
It can build on institutional links between some of the top European ML sites (
http://mlg.eng.cam.ac.uk/?page_id=1458 ), as well as a cooperation between MPI-IS/Cyber
Valley and PRAIRIE.
For Germany, such an analysis has been performed in the recent EFI expertise, see
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.
The term ‘tenure’ in this document does not refer to a university process, but to an analogous process to turn temporary
ELLIS appointments into permanent ones
LMB (founded by Geoff Hinton and now run by Yoshua Bengio and Yann LeCun) played a major role for the recent wave of Deep Learning.