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There’s a saying in ice hockey: skate to where the puck is going.
Even as ChatGPT’s emergence and rapid rise has firmly put the ‘AI’ into mainstream, Ireland has been quietly putting in place the building blocks for more than two decades, ready to take advantage as machine learning and large language models make their big breakthrough.
And that moment has arrived. “Accelerated computing and generative AI have hit the tipping point. Demand is surging worldwide across companies, industries and nations,” said Nvidia founder and CEO Jensen Huang at the company’s Q4 2023 earnings call.
Ireland caught the AI train early – when the destination had a different name. “We’ve been doing AI in Ireland for more than 20 years. It wasn’t always called AI, it was often called data analytics. There's been a kind of redefinition of what makes up AI: now we call it anything that mimics humans, whereas really, it should be anything that learns from humans,” says Professor Alan Smeaton, founding director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, a joint initiative between researchers at several Irish universities.

A strong AI talent pipeline

Pro rata, Ireland’s AI expertise compares extremely well to many other developed countries. The education system produces 1,500 Masters graduates per year, supported by Skillnet Ireland. Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) centres for researcher training, spread across many Irish universities, have collectively produced between 600 and 700 PhD graduates over a four-year period from 2019, effectively doubling the number of PhD graduates coming out of Ireland. In addition, the SFI centres dedicated to AI, ADAPT and Insight, are also producing graduates who have the skills to work in this field. 

Ireland was also the first country in the world to develop an industry-driven nationwide Postgraduate MSc in Artificial Intelligence.

It also has one of the highest EurAI fellows per capita; this is an accolade that the  European Association for Artificial Intelligence bestows on a select few individuals who have made a significant contribution to the field. “What makes us in Ireland unique is, we’re small enough that people know each other to collaborate effectively yet large enough for every one of us to grow,” Professor Smeaton says.
In Ireland, Prof Smeaton divides AI activity into four distinct camps. The first of these comprises large technology players: the Insight Centre has ongoing collaborations with Microsoft, Meta, IBM and Alphabet, Google’s parent company. “A lot of their interest in us is in our talent pipeline, because so many of our graduates, our masters students, and our PhDs and postdocs then go to work for these very large companies, but we do work with them in other areas,” Prof Smeaton explains.
OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, announced it would set up an operation in Dublin in late 2023. Its chief strategy officer Jason Kwon, on a recent visit to Dublin, described himself as “intoxicated” by the tech talent on offer in Ireland.

Microsoft has been similarly impressed, saying that Ireland is on the “world stage” for artificial intelligence. “The industry here, the attraction of foreign investment and the ability of Ireland, enables it to really be a leader across the EU, US and around the world,” said Mary Snapp, the company’s vice president of strategic initiatives. 

Multinationals investigating AI in Ireland

Smeaton’s next category comprises multinationals with operations here – not exclusively in technology but in sectors like financial services, automotive and others.

Many companies with operations in Ireland have centres of excellence in AI-related areas like data analytics, cloud computing and big data.

Names include Accenture, Siemens, Zalando, SAP, HubSpot, Deutsche Bank, Amazon Web Services, Salesforce, Fidelity Investments, Ericsson, Intel, Dell EMC, Microsoft, Mastercard, Stryker, Boston Scientific, Qualcomm, AMD, Analog Devices, GM, Valeo. 
The third area of AI activity centres on Irish agencies such as the Health Service Executive, the Marine Institute and the Gaelic Athletic Association, that are looking to digital transformation where AI is an obvious fit to help them on their journey.

Emerging Irish AI enterprises 

The fourth category is university spinouts involving research in AI-adjacent fields like automation, data analysis, machine learning and artificial intelligence. One example is Digital Gait Labs, which developed an app called GaitKeeper that uses video and biomarkers to identify characteristics of a person’s walk. From that, it can help to determine if they need treatment. The technology builds on years of third-level research into computer vision and motion capture. This has ultimately led to that spinout and the technology is about to be trialled in Tallaght hospital in Dublin. 
Voysis, an Irish company that developed technology that helps digital voice assistants understand natural language better, was acquired by Apple in 2020. It’s believed the technology is now part of Apple’s AI-enabled virtual assistant, Siri. Voysis founder Peter Cahill had been researching speech technology and neural networks for more than 15 years. Before Voysis was acquired, it scored a big coup by luring one of Google’s senior engineers to join.  
Another AI spinout that started life in an Irish university is Soapbox Labs, which developed AI-powered voice technology for children. In late 2023, the US educational technology firm Curriculum Associates bought the company. 

Intercom, the customer communications software provider is an Irish unicorn, having achieved the mythical $1 billion valuation in 2018. The company is active in the AI space. In 2023, it launched a combined chatbot, help desk and proactive support tool based on GPT-4. 

Strong focus on university sector 

Whether it’s called data analytics, machine learning or AI, Ireland’s decision to focus on the university sector was by design. Dr Nicola Stokes, chief technologist for financial services at IDA Ireland, says: “Nearly 25 years ago, the Irish Government decided to take an academic-led approach to developing AI talent. And that decision has really paid off for us, as access to talent has become the number one reason why companies bring AI R&D investment to Ireland. There are many Irish-trained AI researchers who have built their careers here and now hold very senior, global positions in AI across the Irish multinational base. .” 
This list includes Prag Sharma, global head of AI at Citi; Alessandra Sala, director of AI and data science at Shutterstock, and former head of analytics research at Bell Labs; Andreea Wade, whose data science company was acquired by iCIMS; Abeba Birhane, Trinity College Dublin/Mozilla, who sits on the UN’s Advisory Body on AI; Steve Flinter who is a Distinguished Engineer and SVP in AI & Quantum Computing at Mastercard; and Fergal Reid, VP of AI at Intercom, who has a PhD in machine learning from the SFI Insight Centre. 
The focus on the university sector continues today. In 2024, the University of Limerick (UL) scored a major coup with the appointment of the renowned academic, Professor Lionel Briand, Professor of Software Engineering in UL’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems. He also serves as Director of Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Research Centre for Software.  

Professor Briand has 30 years of experience on trustworthy software and AI research.  

This appointment is very timely, with the recent passing of the EU AI Act, the first ever legal framework on artificial intelligence. This coming into effect could be an opportunity for Ireland to carve out a niche in AI ethics and assurance. Dr Stokes believes that “Ireland has positioned itself to become the EU Centre for AI ethics and AI assurance in much the same way as we became the data governance centre for GDPR in the EU. Companies have been undertaking AI operations at scale here for many years now, and we have a very collaborative, multidisciplinary academic research ecosystem that is working with companies on pressing topics such as explainable AI, AI and data governance, trustworthy AI and AI ethics. So the ecosystem is primed for success.”

Ireland’s national AI strategy centres on trust

The National AI Strategy for Ireland, AI - Here for Good, explicitly refers to the need for AI that benefits society, with public trust a key component of that. Prof Briand’s background in trustworthy AI makes him especially well aligned with Ireland’s strategy.
As Prof Briand explains: “Increasingly, in most industry sectors and society, software systems rely on AI technology. Despite enormous potential benefits, AI also comes with challenges related to its impact on the safety, security, bias and fairness of systems, and other issues related to the extent to which we can trust these systems. For example, systems should not discriminate against groups of people, should not leak private information, and should always comply with basic safety considerations. Such trustworthiness is crucial if we are, as a society, to avoid harm and fully gain from the deployment of AI-enabled systems.”
Issues around trustworthiness are not specific to AI – as Prof Briand points out, they’re not even new to software. But the very nature of AI, its lack of explainability and inherent uncertainty, means that the more we rely on it, the more acute the need for trust has become. “At Lero, we work on both assuring that such systems are trustworthy and ways to improve them in that respect. In other words, we focus on the responsible engineering of AI-enabled systems,” he says. 

The world is racing towards ever more potent generative AI and large language models. As it does so, Ireland may find itself playing a vital role in harnessing the technology for everyone’s benefit.