“Well-considered integration of technology is important during this phase”
Now that the development of artificial intelligence and robotics is being called the fourth industrial revolution with increasing frequency, program leader Rudolf Müller concludes that the responsible integration of technology in society should be a priority. A list of his observations.
Observation 1: the “big train” of substantial investments in artificial intelligence is rumbling past with no signs of slowing down. Jumping on (or “wanting your own small train”) is one thing, but facilitating and embedding technology in society the right way amounts to an entirely different challenge, and may well be the most important one. At first glance, with his brown hair, light-colored eyes and eyeglasses, Rudolf Müller’s appearance may not be very striking, but anyone listening to him speak will quickly discover he is someone with keen powers of observation. He is a person who is very vocal about his opinion. He is quick to point out what he feels is a significant difference between artificial intelligence and blockchain, both regularly referred to as hype themes. Although the implementation of blockchain technology still raises a variety of question marks, artificial intelligence is long past that stage. We communicate with chatbots and are no longer shocked at surgical procedures that use robots, driverless cars are within reach, and the average young person doesn’t think twice about ever-smarter smartphones. “The exponential growth of the use of algorithms in combination with the availability of enormous amounts of data and computing power have led to solutions that we never could have imagined possible ten years ago.”
Observation 2: Müller sees an incredible number of possibilities for “improving our quality of life” with the aid of all of the technological ingenuity we have at our disposal, and asserts that, as a counterbalance to the often-heard fear of a loss of jobs, the economy will actually start to be more and more about human interaction. “Just look at pop music. Digitization (initially) ushered in the end of record sales. After a few years, the enthusiasm for CDs tapered off, overtaken by streaming. This opened new doors for as-yet-undiscovered talent, people who also introduce and promote themselves via live performances that the general public are all too eager to stand in line to see.” In other words, people will always need human contact, and it is inevitable that new opportunities will arise from this. Absolutely, Müller agrees; acceleration in technology and artificial intelligence comes with massive challenges. Whereas government, business and ordinary citizens constantly face difficult dilemmas, vertical caution and intervention in specific situations are recommended and the difference between scientific ambitions and commercial interests must be monitored to a certain extent.
At Techruption, but also BISS, the knowledge and innovation center with which the professor has been affiliated since October 2015 as Scientific Director, triple-helix parties involved in the initiatives are focusing on the development of “responsible use-cases”. Satisfying a social need is the main ambition and prevents solely commercial interests from becoming predominant. Suitable interventions which enjoy the largest possible (future) social support are being considered. This might include issues involving financial projections and the perceptions people have about their own health. Preferences and potential solutions are brought together during research. Pension providers APG and PGGM have been putting a lot of effort into Vera in recent months. The official mission: to unravel human interaction patterns for a happier society. Artificial intelligence is used to recognize and analyze emotions, both in customers as well as call-center employees. This is designed to lead to improved interaction and service, with a more efficient way of working as a logical result. According to Müller, software far surpasses man in recognizing emotional nuances; estimates are correct in some 70 to 80% of the cases, whereas on average, employees only get it right about half the time. Even though the potential advantages are easy to list and “the effects on stakeholders” are certainly examined, the question of whether or not customers will actually be convinced about the benefits has yet to be answered. Perhaps people aren’t comfortable hearing that their emotions are being analyzed during a conversation, and this fact ultimately carries more weight than other arguments, Müller admits. On the other hand, it is just as realistic to assume that the promising benefits will be a deciding factor and people won’t be upset at all about the fact that their emotions are being exposed.
Focus on content
Observation 3: pressing questions about sustainability and health, for example, could be tackled faster and more efficiently if certain processes were less laborious. Now that he has been “hanging out in Heerlen” for around two years, Müller has noticed a thing or two. One positive observation is that efforts to make the necessary connections between knowledge, technology, the sciences and social issues are “progressing extremely well”. However, he has also noticed some discrepancy in these partnerships between “the speed at which you then want to switch gears” and actually being able to do this in practice. Universities and businesses operate very differently for example; things that are rather self-explanatory and relatively simple (to achieve) in a company can involve a more complex and slower process at a university. This enables companies to anticipate and take action considerably faster than government and knowledge institutes. By contrast, entrepreneurs typically tend to apply trial-and-error techniques instead of first investing time in thorough scientific research, with all the associated consequences. “Improvements in these areas are welcome.”
During the artificial intelligence conference at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus in November, Müller argued that now that technology and data are readily available, the relevant question is mainly how they can become part of society in a useful, responsible way. After all, it is possible to compete with the enormous investments in the United States, among others – “the big train” – (“it is always preferable for the technological debate to be based in science”), as a result of which investing in facilitating and applying technology responsibly is “almost more important” than just pumping money into technology as such.
The program leader is however fairly satisfied with the amount of money available for research and innovation. Smiling, he says, “Of course we would always prefer it to be more, but that’s not the main concern.” Müller mostly thinks about “how enough room can be created” to optimally use these resources. In that sense, things tend to get lost in the shuffle as a result of the slow processes. “Making all of this easier would mean a leap forward; it would lead to the focus being placed solely on content.” Besides, everything that benefits the Euregional breeding ground for innovation is at least worth considering. The website of Clayton Christensen, the man behind the concept “disruptive innovation”, talks about how this type of innovation involves a process in which “a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves upmarket. This ultimately results in displacing established competitors.” Progressive insights and the capacity for self-reflection are inextricably connected to this. Those who don’t shy away from this kind of attitude might just be the smartest.
Rudolf Müller is affiliated with Techruption as a program leader for artificial intelligence. Born in Germany 56 years ago, he studied in Bonn and Berlin. In 1998, Müller settled in the capital of Limburg where he was the Associate Dean of Education at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics, among other positions. In 2015, the Quantitative Infonomics professor took on the role of academic director at the Business Intelligence and Smart Services institute, one of the organizations that have taken the lead with Techruption.