Dutch government to make AI national priority

The Dutch government wants to increase its focus on the artificial intelligence sector, as other countries gain an advantage

The Netherlands was a leading nation in the development of artificial intelligence (AI), but it’s losing momentum. To reignite the sector’s public-private partnership, AINED has formulated a first draft for a Dutch National AI strategy, a setup that will provide a concrete action plan to make AI a national priority.

AINED was founded to map the position of the Netherlands in AI development and is a public-private partnership between TopTeam ICT, Dutch employer federation VNO-NCW, business group MKB Nederland, Innovation Center for Artificial Intelligence, Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO).

In collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group, a report was drawn up to look at what AI can offer the country both now and in the future, and how these can be achieved. “In a world where other countries are fully committed, AI is developing at lightning speed, so it is very important to go along with this and make it a national priority”, AINED said in the preface of the report.

Thomas Grosfeld of MKB Nederland is responsible for science policy and innovation. This includes technologies such as quantum computing, photonics and AI. “Last summer, we received signals there were many questions about the importance of artificial intelligence.

“We saw for ourselves that many countries around us are acting in this area, but in our opinion, it not was being [talked about] enough in the Netherlands. And if it was, it was mainly about its negative impact.”

Constantijn van Oranje, ambassador for StartupDelta, also thinks the Dutch are in danger of missing the boat with prominent developing technologies such as AI.

“If we continue doing things we are doing in the Netherlands right now, we cannot retain our prosperity,” he told the Dutch financial newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad (FD). “It’s not that we are poor at what we’re currently doing, but that others are developing faster.”

Talent is crucial for AI

Grosfeld distinguished two major movements worldwide when it comes to the development of AI. “China and the United States in particular are very busy with the possibilities of artificial intelligence,” he said.

“We, and also the rest of Europe, think about it differently. In our opinion, it must be more about a human-centric approach in which man and machine work side-by-side. The machine must be at the service of people. That is why we integrate ethical issues into our approach. That is essentially the difference from the approach of China and the US.”

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There are already many AI initiatives in the Netherlands, for example, from the business community and the academic world, but they are very fragmented. “In this world, where billions are spent [and hardly make a dent], it is necessary to work together smartly,” said Grosfeld.

“Talent is essential for progress in AI, and we have been seeing all kinds of developments that prevent the retention and expansion of that talent for the Netherlands.”

This includes talent moving to other countries to further their careers. He said the Netherlands should cherish its talent and ensure they can develop without leaving the country. “Otherwise, it will go completely wrong, so there’s definitely urgency in the public-private area.”

Constantijn van Oranje shared this concern. “If we are not careful, we will miss the revolution in artificial intelligence. That would be really bad, because AI will soon play a role in every part of society,” he said.

Lacking strategy

The report, which forms the first step towards a Dutch AI strategy, concluded there is rapidly growing demand for AI students at companies and scientific institutions, but not the capacity to support them.

The threat of a “brain drain” from successful AI scientists must also be taken seriously. In businesses, AINED sees that few Dutch AI organisations are growing onto the international stage. If they do succeed, these organisations often end up in the hands of American investors or companies. Booking.com, Euvision and Scyfer are just three examples.

“That can have consequences for the ownership of the data and developed technology”, the report said. SMEs often lack the knowledge to work with AI, and they are still not that aware of the opportunities and potential threats of not going along with this development.

“Other countries invest many times more and often have already developed a clear national AI strategy, which in turn leads to more investments. That is still lacking in the Netherlands,” said the report.

Working together on action plan

AINED is currently working in a public-private context to turn the report into a concrete action plan, which should be launched soon. The central government is, partly in response to the AINED report, also preparing an action plan.

This should come together with the AINED action plan to form a common national AI strategy in June. “That is why we have started working closely with knowledge institutions, the business community and the national government.”

Such a strategy requires the pooling of knowledge and strengths – and that always takes time in the Netherlands, said Grosfeld.

“In the Netherlands, everyone is given the space they need. That is our strength. We are almost averse to a top-down approach, in contrast to, for example, France or Germany, where there is much more hierarchy. At the same time, this strength is working against us a bit, because it means everyone wants to be involved when things are being bundled.”

Nevertheless, this has been successful in other areas, such as quantum and photonics, so Grosfeld is confident it will also happen for AI. “We must now ensure that all initiatives come together and that we dare to make choices.”

Man-machine strength

The action plan should lead up to the national AI strategy, but it requires financial commitment from the government and the business community to succeed.

“When we make matters concrete, we can take steps,” said Grosfeld. “The non-committal must be removed. I expect that when the action plan is actually there, a governance structure will follow, although I do not know what that will look like at this time.”

He hopes that in three to five years, the Netherlands will have a number of benefits from the applications of AI picked in the areas of care, mobility and perhaps water management.

“It is especially important that the interaction between man and machine has found the right balance, and that we see AI as a technology that can actually help people,” said Grosfeld.

“We will then hopefully have clear frameworks to operate in. Moreover, we must then have taken steps towards the social acceptance of technology.”

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