Science and Technology

“Today’s world is extremely visual, we are immersed in images”

We talked with Mário Figueiredo, one of the only two Highly Cited Researchers working in Portugal.

He is a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Técnico, where he obtained the bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees before his habilition in 2004. He is also a senior researcher at the Instituto de Telecomunicações (IT) where he coordinates the Networks and Multimedia scientific area and leads the Pattern and Image Analysis group.

Why electrical and computer engineering when it was time to choose?
I had always liked electronics, and also math… At the time, the electrical engineering degree was reputed to be one of the best to learn mathematics and physics with practical applications. At the time I had the vision of an 18-year-old kid and I thought that mathematics was too theoretical and disconnected from the reality.

Did you ever regret it?
Never. In fact, when I was in the middle of my degree, Técnico started offering a degree in physics and I thought a lot about changing, but ended up finding that it wasn’t worth it. Today I do not regret not having changed. It wouldn’t have made sense.

You work in the areas of signal and image processing, optimization, pattern recognition and machine learning…
Yes. These are seemingly very different things, in terms of applications. Image processing is to pick an image and create another, with other features. But automatic learning is, in a way, trying to teach computers to try to solve some problems autonomously.

What kind of problems?
For example, to recognize whether or not a photograph has a face. Or look at a picture and see if that image is inside or outside the house… something that is trivial for us, but not easy for a computer.

And optimization?
Optimization is a branch of mathematics, which is dedicated to creating, developing and analysing algorithms for finding minimums of things. To be as efficient as possible, which has applications in all other problems.

Why is that area so relevant?
Now, when I write project proposals, I begin immediately by saying that people nowadays upload tens of millions of photos to Facebook. The world today is extremely visual, we are immersed in images, and thus everything that has to do with image acquisition, processing, transmission and analysis, is extremely relevant. Big companies are all on top of that.

When did you decide to turn to the study of images?
Very early… My master’s was already in the area of ​​the images. I am also an amateur photographer, and so things come together, although they don’t actually have anything to do with each other.

They’re all images, but the approach is totally different. In my work I use digital tools, but photography is an aesthetic activity, and it is a totally different thing. But I like both things. I like pictures.
This work earned you the presence in the Highly Cited Researchers list, published in July. What does that recognition mean to you?
It means pride, of course, for the recognition of the work. It is a sign that there are people reading what we do. And the most pleasing recognition is peer recognition, from people working in the same area and who know the hardships of the problem, who can analyse what is or is not relevant.

You are one of the only two researchers working in Portuguese institutions included in the list. In a way this will have an impact at a national local level and a national level…
Apparently it contributed slightly to the rise of the University of Lisbon in the Shanghai Ranking because one of the indicators is the amount of Highly Cited Researchers that exist in each university. For the Instituto de Telecomunicações also, of course, it’s one more medal, a recognition.

Besides being a researcher, you
are also a professor, and you said in an interview that you consider that the blood of a university consists of its postgraduate students.
This is taken for granted in the top universities, they know they need teams of PhD students to work. The ones who do the work, always with supervisors, are the PhD students, hence the word blood: they flow, pass, come and go. They don’t stay, it is a flow of students who leave behind their work, their intelligence and their contribution.

What does the lack of these students mean?
Without quality PhD students, it is impossible to do research. It is possible to do it in niches, it is possible to do a little bit of it, but you can’t have a steady stream of work and quality without them.

And how is the situation here at IST?
In the cases I know, it is not great. Portugal is at the bottom of the scale, after the United States, England, the rest of Europe, Australia. Because of the language and because of many other things…

What can we do to improve that?
One of the very important things is to be in a high place in the ranking, to be a university of international standing.

The merger of Universidade Técnica with the Universidade de Lisboa will help?
Yes, I think so.