Network meeting: 'Technology: our friend or foe?'

Is technology humanity’s friend or enemy? That was the question at Amsterdam Economic Board’s networking event on 3 December 2018 at Amsterdam Science Park’s Startup Village. Two speakers came to share their thoughts on the issue: professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Amsterdam, Arnold Smeulders; and Fortune 500 advisor, author and self-proclaimed ‘tech humanist’, Kate O’Neill.

Nina Tellegen, Executive Director Amsterdam Economic Board
(all rights reserved Amsterdam Economic Board)

The annual networking event attracts hundreds of people from around the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area (AMA), including startup founders who are based at the Science Park or within the Park’s Startup Village – a conglomerate of shipping containers topped with grassy roofs, located under the shadow of one of the imposing Data Towers, which boasts 5,000 square metres of data space.

“Facebook knows more about your personal preferences than your family” - Professor Smeulders 

The event is just one part of realising the Amsterdam Economic Board’s vision – one which brings together the private sector, knowledge institutes and government organisations to help build a “smart, green and healthy” future for the AMA. Other ways it helps to achieve this include promoting the switch to circular purchasing and collaborating with the Science Park to develop the Amsterdam Data Exchange(AMdEX) so that data can be exchanged in a safe and transparent way.

Amsterdam Science Park aim to make the park a European hub for digital innovation has a historical foundation: the Science Park was the setting for the first non-military transatlantic email sent in 1988 and the launch of one of the world’s first three websites in 1992. “Just think how much has changed since then,” remarked Eric Boer, director at ACE Incubator and Startup Village, as he introduced the event. “Now imagine the changes that will happen in the next thirty years…”. To make full use of these developments and to stimulate entrepreneurial spirit and origination, digital innovation is a key focus for the Amsterdam Science Park.

Artificial intelligence and the rise of the robots

Prof. dr. ir. Arnold Smeulders
(all rights reserved Amsterdam Economic Board)

The state of artificial intelligence was the focus of Professor Smeulders presentation, who introduced the idea that aspects of our digital world need to be confronted. “We should stop clicking ‘I agree’ all the time,” he said. “We have no idea what we’re agreeing to. It’s just not a good idea. This accumulation of data can come under the control of a single person – for example, that gentleman from Facebook. Using little effort, Facebook has accumulated intimate knowledge of about 1.5 billion people. Research has shown that the company knows more about your personal preferences than your family.”

Smeulders also dismissed humanity’s ongoing concerns that the advancement of AI could lead to an apocalypse engineered by sentient robots. “We don’t have to worry about out-of-control armed AI robots and all that,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”

AI as a problem solver

After years of development, Smeulders said that AI is now ready for mass application in the real world. “I wasted fifteen years trying to make machines recognise a cow in a picture,” he said, “but then we finally figured it out. Now the machines can do it better than we can. AI is officially hot – and I never thought I’d be hot again at my age.”

Smeulders also sees AI making major strides in increasing the efficiency of electricity use, water management and mobility. “And we’ll definitely need it in the future as the population grows older and we have to take care of more and more elderly people,” he explained. “Then there are all the possibilities that are only now getting thought of. For example, using AI to analyse migrant dossiers. Here you have two hot-button topics, AI and migration, so you need some courage to combine them. But when you do, it could have amazing potential.”

Encoding our best selves in machines

(All rights reserved Amsterdam Economic Board)

The American author Kate O’Neill has two decades of hands-on experience in the tech sector. Now, she’s a self-proclaimed “tech humanist” seeking answers to questions such as “how can tech help create more meaningful human experiences?” Her philosophy is that “we encode ourselves in our machines – so let’s make sure we encode our best selves.”

O’Neill regards the data we generate as the “stitching” between the physical and digital worlds. “We create this data,” she said. “Analytics is about people. And therefore, it must be treated carefully and with respect – balancing personalisation with privacy. In other words, it’s not just about automating the menial or meaningless, but also about automating the meaningful.”

After the presentation, attendees networked over the steam of glühwein and pea soup, exemplifying just how much can be said for the human experience.

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