2 February 2022

by Gavin Abercrombie, Heriot Watt University

In late October 2021, I packed my suitcase and left dark, damp, dreich Edinburgh for, well, dark, damp, dreich Milan. Okay, maybe the days are a little longer, but the climate in winter is pretty familiar to the vitamin D-starved Scotland-based postdoctoral researcher – oh, and they have ‘alien’ winter-proof mosquitos well into November.
Thanks to the award of a Postdoctoral and Early Career Researcher Exchanges (PECE) award, in Autumn/Winter 2021/22, I was to spend almost three months as a visiting researcher at the MilaNLP natural language processing group (NLP) at Bocconi University in
Unfortunately, the second half of my visit was somewhat marred by the emergence of the Omicron COVID variant, resulting in two periods of enforced self-isolation, and limited opportunity for in-person working with other people. Nevertheless, I was able to begin work on two projects in collaboration with researchers at Bocconi and an industry partner. These focused on the human side of AI, the labels given to texts used to train machine learning systems, the people who create them, and the possible subjectivity they bring to these tasks. In short, we want to examine how consistent people are, to what extent they agree with each other, how their languages and bilingualism may affect their responses, and how reliable the datasets that AI systems are based on them are. While these studies are still works in progress, we hope to submit papers based on them for publication later this year.
After almost two years of working from home, the highlight of the visit was undoubtedly being able to work in-person with other researchers, as, for most of my stay, life in Milan went on as normal, at least for those with the vaccination ‘green pass’. I was therefore able to discuss my work and give in-person presentations, both at Bocconi and the University of Turin.
I met a lot of great people, both at and outwith Bocconi, several of whom I have begun collaborations with. Hopefully this will be the start of a long running, two-way relationship between the Scottish and Italian NLP research communities. Although next time I’ll try to time my visit in between the freezing-fog and killer-mosquito seasons.

1.Negri et al. (2021) Evidence for the spread of the alien species Aedes koricus in the Lombardy region, Italy. Parasites Vectors 14, 534 (2021).

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