Self-driving cars, smart telephones, robots in care roles: artificial intelligence is everywhere. And the pace of development is rapid. If the Netherlands wishes to continue to play a role, it must have the requisite knowledge. And therein lies the rub.
NWO warns that in the space of one year, the Netherlands has fallen from fifth to fourteenth in the ‘AI Readiness Index’ published by Oxford Insights, a ranking of national governments by their potential to use AI. EAISI director, Carlo van de Weijer is not impressed, “There are as many lists as there are regions, so I'm not paying it too much attention.”
Although he does believe that the investment in AI in other parts of the world is sufficiently high to give cause for concern. “But we can still catch up, so it is definitely not too late. In a couple of specific areas we in the Netherlands still number among the best, in particular where AI is combined with machines - which doesn't just mean robot soccer or solar cars."
EAISI intends to recruit fifty new professors, associate professors and assistant professors. “In fact, the first appointments have already been made, among them are talented women in the AI field. A vacancy list is posted on our EAISI website and we are actively seeking other platforms to maximize our chances of hiring outstanding individuals,” says Van de Weijer.
“We do, of course, have to adhere to the salary norms of VSNU and that makes it a little more difficult to compete internationally for AI talent. But we are also looking at offering combined university-industry contracts, an option that appeals to many scientists. We should also realize that compared to many other high-tech regions the cost of living is lower here and our environment can offer a good quality of life,” he says, wearing his promotional hat. “And the region has a good international school, for example, which can sometimes be a deciding factor.”
NWO doesn't want to miss the AI boat. In an effort to guide the revolution, it has produced a national research agenda for artificial intelligence, which is supported across the board (humanities, hard sciences and social sciences). The agenda describes everything involved in developing an AI algorithm or an AI system, i.e. not only the technical aspects, but also the interaction with people and society.
“It isn't five to twelve, it is five past twelve,” says professor Inald Lagendijk, expert at TU Delft in the field of AI and chair of the committee that wrote the research agenda. He believes it is high time action was taken, even if 'better late than never' now applies.
Lagendijk knows which areas the Netherlands excels in. “We are good at machine learning, for example, the development of algorithms and techniques that enable computers to learn. And at teaching ethics. Take, for example, a self-driving car. You can teach it the rules of the road, but there are also norms and values that are less easy to instill in a system.”
Together with Lagendijk, Van de Weijer is active in the Netherlands AI Coalition, which organizes a great deal of consultation between universities. “Machine learning and ethics are strengths in the Netherlands' field of knowledge. Brainport Region Eindhoven offers a further strength: complex system integration - with a number of global market leaders established in the region.”
“It isn't that the quality of AI research is falling, it is still very high. But other countries are accelerating and are venturing to invest more. A serious 'talent race' is underway. China and the US, as well as countries surrounding the Netherlands, such as Germany and Sweden, are offering much better employment terms and working conditions,” says Lagendijk. ” Van de Weijer partly agrees. “We should be able to make offers that exceed the norms, but money isn't everything. A good research ecosystem within and beyond the university also counts for something, and as the Dutch song goes, 'Life is good in our Brabants land'. Don't underestimate that.”
With the research agenda, Lagendijk is keen to show politicians how important AI is for the future of the Netherlands, not only economically but also for our society as a whole. “We know that AI will impact our lives, and we would be well advised to make sure that how this happens is governed by European values. We shouldn't let the US or China call the shots,” he says.
Only last week, Van de Weijer expressed his disappointment with the contribution the Dutch government wishes to invest in AI. “Substantial investment is needed right now in order to secure a prominent role for the Netherlands in the world of artificial intelligence. We mustn't let ourselves be blinded by what the larger countries do better, we simply need to excel in our own specialist fields. After all, there are still a whole host of things we do better than the US or China.”