87 million assigned to build artificial intelligence research

ROBUST, a new project of the Innovation Center for Artificial Intelligence at the University of Amsterdam, aims to develop trustworthy AI technology for the resolution of socially relevant issues. Some studies show that 34 percent of people are afraid of AI, while 24 percent think AI will be harmful for society. Maarten de Rijke, Professor of AI and Information Retrieval at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and director of the Innovation Center for Artificial Intelligence (ICAI), acknowledges that technological development creates opportunities, but also fears. We have seen that also in the past, not just with AI, but also with the arrival of electricity, the steam engine, etc. The question of potential job loss also comes up. Typically, with all those technological changes, more jobs were created than lost. Jobs change and that is why it is important to give people a lot of transparency about what the changes might be and transparency about how they could be part of the change rather than being pushed aside.

Building trustworthy AI
ICAI focuses on the joint development of AI technology through industry labs in collaboration with the business sector, government and knowledge institutes. It was launched in 2018 and has run projects with a strong focus on tech development. De Rijke says that he is most proud of the people ICAI has attracted from all around the world. Secondly, in terms of tech, some projects have already been finished, mostly in the field of Computer Vision. ICAI is working on Computer Vision to support decision-making in healthcare, that is, better understanding the images that are used in cancer treatment or in diagnostics. ICAI is also working on the reduction in energy consumption by using algorithms. Sometimes, the reduction is more than 90 percent.

Now, ICAI’s new initiative, ROBUST, will focus on tech development with a clear societal goal. All the labs at ROBUST have signed up for one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals,  such as reduced inequality, sustainable infrastructures and solid societal organizations. ROBUST is supported by the University of Amsterdam and 51 government, industry and knowledge-sector partners. Seventeen new public-private labs will be set up under the ROBUST umbrella and form part of the ICAI, thus bringing its lab total to 46. The programme aims to strengthen the Dutch artificial intelligence (AI) ecosystem by boosting fundamental AI research, focusing primarily on the development of trustworthy AI technology for the resolution of socially relevant issues, e.g. in healthcare, logistics, media, food and energy. “The new labs will still build algorithms to help solve a problem, but the focus is especially on making these algorithms trustworthy. In some cases trustworthiness means that the data doesn’t leak, for instance in the medical setting. In other cases it means that the methods are resilient against changes in the world and against attack,” says De Rijke.

170 PhD candidates
ICAI focuses on AI talent and knowledge development. In the coming year, ROBUST will recruit no fewer than 85 new PhD candidates, followed by another 85 in five years’ time. Why hire PhD candidates instead of recruiting experienced specialists from around the world? “There is a big shortage of talent, so there is just not enough specialists around. We need to create a next generation of those specialists,” says De Rijke.

The new labs within ROBUST have a strong emphasis on technology development, but they all work in context. In some of the labs the focus is, for instance, on technology development in the medical setting. Hence, the ideal PhD candidates have a mixture of medical background and demonstrate knowledge in computer science, AI or statistics. However, part of the research agendas in each of the labs is devoted to figuring out how the technology can be put in place in such a way that people trust it. Hence, in each of the labs there will also be a PhD student with a background in Humanities or Social Sciences.

ROBUST is sponsored by the Dutch Research Council (NWO), which has earmarked 25 million euros for the programme for the next ten years. The total ROBUST budget amounts to €87.3 million, of which 7.5 million comes from the Ministry of Economics and Climate.

Written by Zuzanna Kuffel