Leonid Sokolinsky: “Chelyabinsk Needs Its Own Skolkovo to Develop IT Technology”

“Nash Chelyabinsk” (Our Chelyabinsk) website introduces a new creative project, which will acquaint readers with Chelyabinsk residents responsible for IT development of the South Ural capital. There are officials and representatives of science, entrepreneurs, who have already achieved success in the field of digital economy, and new businessmen with ambitious IT start-ups.

We would like to present you the conversation with the Vice-Rector for Informatization of South Ural State University, Doctor of Sciences (Physics and Mathematics), Professor Leonid Sokolinsky.

Would you please give us the assessment of the IT level in our region?

Should I be honest [smiles], or I can colour the truth? Let me try to answer this question from the viewpoint of a common Chelyabinsk citizen, an ordinary user of the IT technologies available in our city. Though, I can be considered to be an advanced and qualified consumer of digital services. But, unfortunately, I can name very few purely Chelyabinsk-originating digital products, all the rest are the federal components: electronic work flow, public services that have become quite convenient, tax affairs and so on. At the end of the day Chelyabinsk only has the “Gorod” (City) utility payment system to offer, which has been used by the residents of the South Ural capital for a long time. From my point of view, Chelyabinvestbank has yielded a rather efficient digital tool. Despite the fact that such central banks as Sberbank and Alfa-Bank have similar services, I do use them, and choose a more convenient and clear the Chelyabinsk “Gorod” system. Here is the bright example of high-quality and at the same time small-town digitalization in its best sense. Unfortunately, the examples of the Chelyabinsk digital products end there. However, the progress of Intersvyaz company can be mentioned. They have a number of ingenious IT solutions, which are not implemented on a city or a region scale, remaining unclaimed by the city authorities.

Do you think it is a problem?

I believe it is a problem. Intersvyaz company has serious technologies and significant achievements that could be implemented at the city level. However, the officials react to these proposals very carefully. And if you discard political correctness and call it what it is, then the accumulated potential of the Chelyabinsk IT company is simply not used by the Chelyabinsk authorities. Intersvyaz remains in the business sphere only, however the company feels comfortable successfully competing with the federal providers.

From your words it is clear that Chelyabinsk can’t be called an IT-developed city, can it?

No, it cannot. It is obvious that we have well-developed Internet periodicals, and Chelyabinsk citizens are active users of social media, and now I am not giving an interview to a newspaper or a TV channel, but to a public page on Vkontakte. But this is a norm for the whole country, and not a sign of advanced IT technologies developing in our city. Frankly speaking we have few such technologies.

Then, let’s move on to our university. Would you please assess the contribution of South Ural State University to the digital development of our region?

Firstly, it is the training of qualified personnel. We are training specialists in information technologies for Chelyabinsk on a very good level. The SUSU IT graduates are in a very high demand throughout our country. It goes without saying that the majority of those who have received degrees stay in our region, but a significant percentage leaves either for Moscow or abroad. Our Master’s degree students work in the world-famous companies such as Yandex, Mail and others. Let me give an example of Rustem Alkapov, who graduated from the Bachelor’s degree programme and was hired by Yandex company. Now he is living in Moscow and is studying at the Master’s degree programme on a distant basis.

Personnel is good. Could you name any other fields of contribution?

There are SUSU research and developments in the field of digital technologies. In this field our university is the first in the Ural region, we do not have any competitors among other universities of the Ural Federal District, we compete with the universities from Moscow and Saint Petersburg. It is important that many of our developments are brought to practical commercial use.

Can you give examples?

For instance, the technologies for parallel database systems have been developed at SUSU. One of our graduates defended his thesis on this topic, and the developments were implemented at the Postgres Professional company in Moscow. At present we are actively engaged in artificial intelligence innovations, and the development is in progress in two fields at once here. The first field is related to the processing of big data and their intellectual analysis. Two weeks ago a doctoral thesis on this topic was defended at SUSU. In addition, our university is the only university in the Ural region that has a dissertation council on information technology. The second field is the development of artificial neural networks, their training and application to solve practical tasks. It is a new powerful and versatile tool that is potentially capable of a lot of things. For example, using the neural network developed by our university the problem of predicting metal sticking in a steel casting machine has been solved.

Can it be used at Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works?

Both Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works and any other metallurgical foundry company in the world can use it. This task was set on a competitive basis by SMS Group, which is a world-famous company from Germany, a world leader in the supply of metallurgical equipment with the annual turnover of three billion euro. Developers from different countries including two German universities worked on the solution to the problem; however, the SUSU idea turned out to be the best one. Now our development has already been brought to the industrial use. Moreover, SMS Group hired two of our graduates, they continued their work in Germany. Our technology along with the rest of the metallurgical equipment complex is now supplied worldwide including to the USA.

Chelyabinsk Electrometallurgy Plant is actively purchasing the SMS Group equipment among the Chelyabinsk metallurgical companies. That is, if Aleksandr Aristov acted more promptly, he could purchase this development directly from the Chelyabinsk university, and now he has to buy it from the Germans, which is 100 times more expensive.

This might be the case. The relations between science and regional business could be much stronger. Let me give you an example of another task, which the specialists from Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works and other metallurgical companies in Russia have been working on for a long time. There is a line on which zinc coated metal is produced. At Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works this line is in the 11th sheet rolling shop, it is a completely fantastic unit delivered to Magnitogorsk by SMS-Group. There is a continuous strip of metal with automatic coating, huge rolls are twisted without human intervention, then the galvanized sheets are willingly bought by automobile manufacturers.

But even the faultless German equipment can occasionally have malfunctions and small defects in the galvanizing process due to various reasons, since everything can happen in the real production. How are these defects detected at Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works? At a speed of 7 metres per second a metal strip flows, and a staff member is watching this process from the glass booth trying to find the problem visually. Do you think it gives any good results? It is ridiculous, the line itself is automatic and flawless, but the method for detecting defects is from the 20th century if not from the 19th one.

For a modern metallurgical plant human factor is a headache, as something can simply be skipped, or some problem is noticed late. A bolt can accidentally fall onto the line and spoil several metres, but the staff member has turned away at that moment and did not notice the spot that occurred there. The sheet is rolled up and delivered to the consumer, and then the defect is detected there. It is quite natural to receive a complaint that defect metal was supplied.

The result is a drop in prestige, which immediately affects contracts. SUSU proposed to introduce artificial neural network at the factory, metal strip will be monitored through cameras, and as a result of such online-monitoring the probability of a defect being missed will decrease to 0.001. Moreover, the neural network will not only notice the defect, but will also immediately classify it with a probability of over 90%; neither a staff member in a glass booth, nor even an engineer could ever do that. We elaborated technical specifications and created a software prototype. It is obvious that for a constantly running installation we need tens of millions of roubles. They have not decided to spend this amount on a neural network at Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works, and the project has not been implemented yet.

What should be done that both your best graduates do not leave Chelyabinsk for Moscow or London, and the local enterprises notice the scientific discoveries of SUSU already at the stage of development and not when some initiative Germans have bought them?

There is no simple answer to such a difficult question. I will try to express my own point of view on this problem. A possible solution is the foundation of a complex IT cluster, or even a small city, somewhat like Skolkovo but of a smaller scale, in Chelyabinsk. Why is the Skolkovo model good and promising? The offices of high-tech companies, science, and representatives of education have been gathered together in the Moscow suburbs.

There research laboratories, high-tech enterprises and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology training students are nearby, and what is important is that they are located outside the city in an ecological place; and it takes just one hour to reach the centre of Moscow. It is very convenient. It is possible to use such practice in Chelyabinsk, only not for a wide scientific sphere, but focusing on IT.

Do you mean to create an IT centre in Chelyabinsk, which will become an educational centre, a complex for research and modern developments in the field of artificial intelligence, as well as a platform for investors at the same time? But in Skolkovo people not only work, they also live nearby…

There people live, work, study and are engaged in science in one place. The SUSU School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science could be a basis for such IT cluster in Chelyabinsk. It should be taken outside SUSU, somewhere in Kremenkul, where the L-Town, a city of the future, is being built now. It is the same Skolkovo model: you need half an hour to reach the centre of the city, however you live, study and work in an ecologically clean place with beautiful nature. The infrastructure is ready, there is an excellent road and comfortable low-rise buildings. There are no industrial emissions, and it is namely bad ecology that is the reason for the most talented and promising people to leave our city.

A young IT specialist might have stayed to live here, but once he has a family, he has to take care of the health of his child, and his wife wants a more comfortable environment around. People leave without seeing anything that suits them in their home town. It is not just my reasoning; let me give you an example. My student and a promising scientist Pavel Kostenetsky, Head of the Supercomputer Simulation Laboratory has left Chelyabinsk recently. Now he is working at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and the reason is bad ecology in Chelyabinsk, Pavel’s children have always had health problems because of it. If he worked outside the city, there would not be a problem.

Does the government of Chelyabinsk take any actions? Will we have our own suburban Naukograd science city?

The previous governor was indifferent to this topic. The current governor has a different position. He shows interest and understanding of the importance of actions in this field. IT development for the Chelyabinsk Region is also very profitable, since it requires minimal capital investment. An IT specialist does not need anything except a computer. Let us settle a smart guy in a place with a comfortable living environment, create all the conditions for a comfortable modern life, and place his friends and offices of high-tech companies nearby. It's not that expensive. But we will immediately begin to compete with Yandex, Kaspersky, or Facebook, where the best minds of Chelyabinsk are constantly draining to.

What benefit can this IT cluster have directly for SUSU?

Any university that trains IT specialists has a certain gap between the university and IT companies, where our graduates get jobs. SUSU is engaged in fundamental research, but after receiving a degree in science, five percent of graduates remain in science, while the rest are immersed in practical work. Therefore, it is extremely important for the university to increase the number of applied research and solve specific problems of customer companies.

At present our graduates are perfectly prepared theoretically, but being employed at an IT company, they have to study again for some time, getting involved into the technological and business processes of the employer. This is the very gap. It is possible to overcome it, within the framework of IT, bringing together our students and the companies that are waiting for them. By combining them in one compact and comfortable place, this will benefit both the education system and the employer, who does not waste time for additional training of a new employee.

Will it be a financial success?

Companies will spend less on recruiting and additional training. In the IT-cluster system, students will not only solve the abstract tasks that teachers give them, but will also begin to puzzle over specific business orders from the very first years of study. And after graduation they will become completely ready-made specialists, and companies will receive personnel of a much higher quality, which is a direct benefit.

Where is the SUSU money here?

The knowledge gained at the university is a guarantee of high salary. Those who come to study on a contractual basis understand this perfectly well. Students have fairly high scores in the Unified State Examination, but these are not enough to study on a state-financed basis. They would like to become programmers, and therefore study on a contractual basis. However, if SUSU has its own IT cluster and educational programmes that are directly focused on the needs of the IT business, the demand for our graduates will be very high. Training in an IT-cluster system is a direct path to a good career in a leading company and high salary. Thus, those who are thinking about a Moscow university will apply for SUSU instead, and we have a lot of such students in Chelyabinsk.

Source: Nash Chelyabinsk website

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