In September the Informatics Institute’s new home, LAB42, was officially opened. The institute’s director, Alfons Hoekstra, talks about what LAB42’s new ecosystem means for the future of computer science at UvA, and for the development of the business ecosystem at Amsterdam Science Park.
When you walk into LAB42, you pass large glass windows overlooking a soccer field for robots, some NAO robots sitting at the side and a Pepper robot with its eyes on you. This clearly visible space for experimenting with robots is a nice, inviting showcase for UvA’s computer science research that has been housed in the brand new LAB42. LAB42’s slogan, written on one of the windows at the front of the building, is ‘Answering tomorrow’s questions together.’
Alfons Hoekstra, director informatics institute
“Our mission is to do three things: top education, top research and impactful valorization.
The building is more than just another new building. It is meant to create a new ecosystem. ‘Our mission is to do three things’, says the institute’s director Alfons Hoekstra, ‘top education, top research and impactful valorization. This is the first time we have all those three functions sitting together in one building. The third floor houses the co-creation space. Above that, are three floors with academic research, and below is all the teaching. We easily meet in this building. It feels like a unity, that we have never had before. Education and research is of course what we have traditionally been doing. The third function, valorisation is relatively new, so it is exciting to see how it will play out to have it under one roof.’
The number of computer science students grew rapidly over the past decade and the Informatics Institute nearly doubled in size in this period, one of the reasons to build LAB42. That growth is expected to continue. At the same time the European Commission expects that in the future about ten to fifteen percent of the EU workforce will have a background in information technology, from all levels of vocational education to university education.
So, it is clear that the societal demand for people with expertise in computer science will only increase. The societal interest in computer science is also the reason that public-private partnerships have grown rapidly over the past years. As an example, a day after the opening of LAB42, the Delta Lab 2 opened, a cooperation between UvA and the German company Bosch. The research in Delta Lab 2 will focus on the use of artificial intelligence, security and causality in machine learning and 3D computer vision. Hoekstra: ‘For us public-private partnerships are a new way to finance fundamental research. And I think the number of such partnerships will continue to increase.’
Having already invested heavily in AI over the past decade, Hoekstra plans to bring other new research directions into the institute. ‘One of the new areas of research we are investing in, is quantum computing. We have just appointed a new professor in the Theory of Computer Science group, Christian Schaffner. He is strongly committed to quantum cryptography and quantum computing.’
AI for the use in financial technologies, or ‘AI for Fintech’, is another new research area. Hoekstra: ‘Amsterdam is the financial capital of the Netherlands, so it makes sense to study the use of AI in finance here. Two professors will work in that field.’
Then there is a theme that UvA at large is strongly committed to, and to which Hoekstra wants to contribute with LAB42: ‘That is sustainability. One way to shape our research in sustainability, is our collaboration with Microsoft’s new Research Lab AI4Science here at Science Park. That lab, led by Max Welling, who has also an appointment at our institute, will use AI to discover new materials to make, among other things, more sustainable products.’
Although the primary mission of the Informatics Institute is still to develop new fundamental knowledge, this will be done more than ever before by collaborating with other partners and thus creating value for society at large, says Hoekstra. ‘I see valorization as creating business value on the one hand and creating societal value on the other hand. And I think every scientist has a mission to do valorization.’
Creating business value involves partnering with companies and encouraging entrepreneurship. Hoekstra would like to see that the institute pays more attention to the fact that students can also start a business: ’Eventually, most of the students we train go into business.’
Creating societal value includes explaining to society what the institute does. Hoekstra gives a few recent examples: ‘We have invested in a quartermaster for post-graduate education. There are people within the institute who have collaborated on the National AI Course. And we are also marketing the concept of lifelong learning. These are all great examples of creating societal value, but in explaining what we do and why, I think we could learn from physicists and astronomers. They have a much longer tradition in science communication with society.’
Alfons Hoekstra, director informatics institute
“I would want for everyone we train in our institute to feel and behave as an ambassador of the science that we do.
The importance of communicating science became especially clear during the corona pandemic, Hoekstra says. ‘We saw a movement against science. We heard people saying that science is just another opinion. We need to be able to explain that science is not just an opinion, but an ancient method that has proven its power in generating knowledge based on well controlled observations. I would want for everyone we train in our institute to feel and behave as an ambassador of the science that we do.’
Looking back: grand opening LAB42.
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