Growing up in the Moroccan sunshine in Casablanca, Professor Mehdi Bennis couldn’t have imagined that he would swap the summer sun for the winter snow and spend much of his adult life in Oulu, northern Finland. Mehdi came to the University of Oulu for a PhD in 2004 and enjoys living there so much, he hasn’t left since. He had previously studied and worked in the field of telecommunications in Switzerland, France and the US, and wanted to go to Finland because it was home to Nokia, a global powerhouse in wireless communications. After his PhD, he stayed on for a postdoc at the Centre for Wireless Communications (CWC) and developed a close network of friends and colleagues who made him feel at home. Now he’s put down roots (he was nominated for citizen of the year) and started a family there. He says, “Life works here, and I met my wife here. It's really nice.”
Mehdi is among the youngest appointed tenured and full professors at the university and leads the Intelligent Connectivity and Networks/Systems (ICON) group, part of the university’s 6G Flagship research program. Every ten years or so, a new generation of new mobile standards is phased in – we’re currently on 5G – and 6G is expected to be released in 2027. Mehdi’s research on 6G and beyond encompasses wireless communication and machine learning. He explains his interest is in, “How do you design communication-efficient, privacy-preserving, scalable machine-learning algorithms over wireless networks? And on the other hand, how do you use AI to help optimise communication, for example, links between base stations and users, or between vehicles or any type of device? It involves theory, algorithms, proofs of concept, and it’s really multidisciplinary.”
At present, he’s working on a cutting-edge project called “Vision X”. This is fundamental research that could transform not only modern communication methods, but also areas like robotics and machine learning. Vision X will attempt to incorporate elements of how humans communicate, called semantic communication, to enable intelligent interpretation of data being transmitted. “We humans use our modes of cognition to understand something, which allows us to transmit less information and to achieve, let's say, a reasoning task,” he says. “Today in wireless communication, we only process data, like, for example, data from traffic mobility patterns – but that's not what humans do. So we need to add this idea of semantics and extract important information from the data. Then, we can use this semantic information to communicate with another agent, which could be a sensor, VR headset, base station, or even a human, and collaboratively solve a task.”
Being on the edge of new frontiers means that Mehdi’s research attracts a lot of interest from industry, and he has forged many collaborations with leading communication companies. He’s not interested in leaving academia though, as he values having the opportunity to do multidisciplinary vision-based research—unlike the business- or technology-driven research he would be obliged to do in industry. “I’m never going to have the same freedom as I have right now in Oulu. This is why as of today I stay, because I'm headhunted left and right, but as of now, the freedom I have here is priceless,” he says. His passion for staying curious and believing in his work has paid dividends. During his stellar career, he’s amassed many awards and accolades, including most highly cited researcher two years in a row, in 2020 and 2021, which places him among the top one percent of the world’s most influential researchers.
Over the years, Mehdi has seen more and more international students and researchers make Oulu their home – more than half of the people in the CWC are from abroad. The university also has a programme to help researchers and their families settle in. In his experience, scientists come to visit and love it there when they experience the magic that Oulu has to offer. For his part, he enjoys the outdoor life, particularly taking long walks in the nearby forests. There’s also the added bonus that he can view the Northern lights from his office window. He says, “The big pro of Oulu is an optimal life-work balance, I think it's one of the best – better than Stockholm, better than Helsinki. Why? Life is so easy and simple. You don't have to commute. My gym, my supermarket, my house, my office are within half an hour’s walk. I don't have to drive, I just bike to work. To me this is unbeatable.”
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Mehdi Bennis is a full professor at the University of Oulu and leads the Intelligent Connectivity and Networks/Systems (ICON) group, part of the university’s 6G Flagship research program.