AI Technology for People is a unique collaboration between Amsterdam’s universities, research centres and the municipality to share knowledge and skills in the field of AI so that technology can be designed and deployed in an ethical, responsible way that improves people’s lives. 

The programme kicked off in 2019 and will see €1 billion invested over 10 years in initiatives to increase education and research to advance the field, particularly in business innovation, citizen support and healthcare. Here, president of University of Amsterdam (UvA) and programme initiator Geert ten Dam and board member of the Netherlands employers’ organisation VNO-NCW and programme ambassador Anita Nijboer talk about the growing AI ecosystem, the many applications of the technology, and how it’s already impacting society.

Amsterdam AI Technology for People initiator and UvA president Geert ten Dam and programme ambassador Anita Nijboer. (Credit: Bob Bronshoff/New Scientist)

This coalition is new, but Amsterdam’s knowledge institutions have been working on AI for some time now. 

GtD: Certainly. Two years ago, we appointed four university professors in the field of AI at the UvA [There are now five, ed.]. They cover the different facets of AI, from information processes and search engines to the legal implications of automated decision-making. But we aren’t doing it alone. The VU Amsterdam is the leader of a major Gravitation programme aimed at improving the collaboration between man and machine. The AUAS has a professorship in Responsible IT. All this knowledge is needed for AI to be of real value to society and to make full use of its innovative power.

When the term AI is mentioned, it is usually followed by words such as ‘privacy’ and ‘laws and regulations’. 

AN: AI is always about sharing data. And we are already sharing a lot of data without knowing it. For example, your phone is full of AI, and every time you use it, bytes cross the ocean to big tech. Do you agree with that in terms of privacy? What happens to that data? Of course, it’s not only about data on a phone, but also about patient data, for example. It is essential for hospitals to be able to exchange data with each other in a responsible way in order to learn from it. This not only benefits patients, but also healthy people. In other words, medical science will only advance if you can learn from previous cases.

What makes the collaboration between the knowledge institutes so strong? 

GtD: Developments within AI are rapid, and our strength is the integrated approach. We can only keep up with these developments and guide them together. We need each other and that penny dropped in Amsterdam.

AN: The collaboration allows the institutions to join forces and create more knowledge and expertise. In addition, AI encompasses so many aspects that can now be included. Joining forces is so incredibly important, because, if we don’t invest in AI, the Netherlands will fall behind, also compared to other European countries. It is even questionable whether we can still catch up in some areas. Investments should, therefore, not only be made in AI in Amsterdam, but in all major ecosystems in the Netherlands, for example in the Delft, Rotterdam, Leiden, Eindhoven, and Wageningen clusters. 

University of Amsterdam

Why is the Netherlands lagging behind?

GtD: The Netherlands has invested far too little in AI. A PhD student trained here is often brought up in another country. In Germany, AI professors receive a substantial budget and a number of PhD candidates upon appointment. In the Netherlands, the most important thing we need is an encouraging innovation climate and collaboration between knowledge institutions and companies. This leads to flourishing talent, and talent in turn attracts talent. This requires investments.

AN: Research shows that talents are being lured away from the Netherlands: to Silicon Valley or China, but also to places closer to home, such as Berlin. Germany is one of the European countries that invests a lot of money in the further development of AI. The Netherlands should take that as an example.

What should Amsterdam do to retain talent?

AN: Amsterdam should create an ecosystem in which talents can thrive and develop further, because they are able to work on new business propositions at innovative companies such as Adyen and Philips, but also at startups. You want to keep companies like these in the Netherlands. Fortunately, Amsterdam is still seen as a nice place to live and study.

GtD: In addition, contact with other highly innovative ecosystems in the Netherlands is crucial. It’s not just about Amsterdam. We have to enhance each other in order to enhance the Netherlands and, in doing so, make the Netherlands a strong European player in the field of AI. We really need to scale up.

AN: Amsterdam can’t do it alone, but we can work on all kinds of projects here. These projects can then be rolled out more broadly. Amsterdam is an orderly city, with a great diversity of people and a lot of creative talent. Amsterdam is a living lab.

What projects are currently underway?

AN: All projects fall within three domains: business, citizens and health. In business, for example, we have labs at major companies at the Amsterdam Science Park, including Ahold Delhaize, TomTom, and Elsevier. At these labs, there are five PhD students working under the supervision of a professor and someone from the company for five years. The municipality also plays a role in the citizens’ domain. Take, for example, crowd control, the placement of EV charging stations, but also research into the application of AI in the field of education, welfare, the environment, and mobility.
GtD: There used to be law centres, where there were people who could help you to write a notice of objection. Now people can simply upload their data online to UvA’s Amsterdam Law Hub and receive a notice of objection tailored to their situation. Data science and AI make that possible.

What is happening specifically in the field of health?

AN: On the one hand, improving care, and on the other hand, prevention. We recently appointed a professor who will focus on AI and health. A very recent example for the treatment of disease is the sharing of ICU data of patients treated for COVID-19 (within legislation and regulations, of course). A project in which the Amsterdam UMC was already involved but in which many Dutch hospitals are now participating.

GtD: We are also working with the Amsterdam Economic Board on a data-sharing system, a platform with which data can be exchanged in a responsible manner. The intention is that data can be shared in such a way that the data remains the property of the person who collected the data. This way, no monopoly behaviour will occur.

How do you see the future?

AN: AI is not something you study from behind your desk for a few years and then roll it out. I like to quote AI professor Maarten de Rijke: ‘You have to get on the highway, don’t wait, but make sure there is a crash barrier along the road. It doesn’t matter if you hit that crash barrier once in a while without causing major damage.’ The essence of AI is that you learn from application, from data, but with the focus on people.

GtD: Amsterdam’s knowledge institutes have built up a wealth of knowledge about data science over the past 20 years. We are sharing this knowledge and that benefits everyone.

This article first appeared in a special AI edition of the New Scientist.

Read more about the AI sector in Amsterdam.