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Organisations working in the Netherlands’ artificial intelligence (AI) space need to collaborate to ensure the country keeps pace with developments across the world, or the country could be left behind.
Superpowers are building up their lead in the field of AI and, according to Kees van der Klauw, coalition strategist at the programme office of the Dutch AI Coalition, it is crucial for the Netherlands to claim its place in the field of AI.
Van der Klauw said the AI industry in the Netherlands is divided. “In order to make an impact, we need to work together,” he said.
“The point with AI is that the winner takes it all. The one who is first able to make a good application gets customers. These customers feed the application with data, which makes it even better. If you get in later, it is difficult to catch up with that lead.”
Van der Klauw was referring to the US superpowers such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. But the fact that these organisations have been collecting all kinds of data from users for years in order to use that information and knowledge does not mean there are no more opportunities for the Netherlands, he said. “There are indeed. Think in particular of the link with application areas. The combination of domain knowledge with knowledge of AI can lead to an enormous acceleration.”
The Dutch AI Coalition wants to bring parties together to share knowledge and create a critical mass. These collaborating parties come mainly from the government, the business community, research and education, but citizens and end-users are also taking part. In the two weeks leading up to the official launch of the coalition, more than 60 institutions and companies have registered to participate.
“This is a good reflection of the parties we want to involve,” said Van der Klauw. “We are not a closed organisation – we are happy to welcome new participants even after the official start.”
The coalition has defined five areas where it wants to achieve significant results.
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The first is talent and human capital. “There is a shocking shortage of professionals in the labour market,” said Van der Klauw. “How do we get more talent and how do we ensure that more people are trained quickly, who can then train others? It is also a challenge to keep talented people in the Netherlands. So we want to make the Netherlands attractive for scientists and users to stay here. Critical mass is an important method for this.”
The coalition wants to have 400 extra AI researchers in the Netherlands within three years.
The second area is research and innovation – seeking ways to share the knowledge present at universities and applied research centres. “Smaller companies, in particular, often do not know where to obtain knowledge,” said Van der Klauw. “Not only do we want to make knowledge available, but we also want to ensure more investment in knowledge development.”
The third area is the most critical – data sharing. “People sell their heart and soul for a game on their phone, but for professional applications, it is still difficult to share data between institutions,” said Van der Klauw. “We want to develop and offer a method that makes clear how data can be shared quickly, easily and, above all, securely, while ensuring that privacy is well protected.”
The fourth area concerns social acceptance and inclusion, said Van der Klauw. “This is about the potentially dangerous aspects of AI and people’s concerns,” he said. “How do you deal with privacy, what are the ethical frameworks of this development? This is a subject that should not be discussed in retrospect, but should be taken into account from the outset.” Inclusion means that no population groups are left out, he added.
The fifth area is startups and scale-ups, said Van der Klauw, pointing out that more than 20% of the startups in Europe are data-driven. “Almost all of these companies face the same problem – obtaining venture capital,” he said. “When they receive it from abroad, these startups disappear from the Netherlands. We want to support them in obtaining risk capital, but we also want to link them to partners. Often, startups can help large companies, because they are fast and competent in the field of data and AI.”
The Dutch AI Coalition is financed through public/private funds. Van der Klauw hopes that about €2bn will be available over seven years to secure the Netherlands’ knowledge position in the field of AI, and part of the investment must come from the government. “We have indications that the government is inclined to make this investment,” he said.
But what happens if the government does not come up with the money? “Then we really have a problem,” said Van der Klauw. “Because the rest of the world is not standing still. France and Germany have already announced major investments and the reality of the US with its AI superpowers is simply there.”
But Van der Klauw sees positive things happening in The Hague. Although AI is a relatively new area of expertise, the coalition has good contacts with members of parliament who understand the subject. “But it’s only a fact when the minister announces that the fund will actually be set up,” he said. “This does not mean that we sit back and wait for the government to put the money on the table. No, we are going to work, because this is such an important subject. And so it automatically becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The coalition will consist of three layers. The strategic team monitors the direction of the organisation, approves budgets and involves the supporters. This includes the coalition desk, the support apparatus that aims to relieve the working groups of their worries.
“And the working groups – that’s where it happens,” said Van der Klauw. “The working groups are composed for the five horizontal topics, but also in application areas such as industry, health and care, safety and energy. They consist of various participants who will be in regular contact with each other – not only digitally, but also physically in order to exploit the cross-links. These working groups are the coalition’s first priority.”
The groups will focus on the goals the coalition has set itself. As well as bringing in 400 extra researchers in three years, the coalition also wants the Netherlands to score high on acceptance. “With this, we want to end up in the European top three,” said Van der Klauw.
Achieving critical mass
That learning effect is crucial, said Van der Klauw. “That is why the AI living labs are very important, because you can’t find out from behind your desk.”
The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) has a field lab and the University of Amsterdam is working with companies in the ICAI Labs. “We not only need to test the technology in practice, but also, for example, legal frameworks,” said Van der Klauw. “In the coming years, more living labs will have to be set up where companies can experiment with AI in an easily accessible way. The overwhelming interest in the Dutch AI Coalition in the weeks prior to its official presentation shows how much the subject is alive.
“In AI, everything comes together, which is why we call this a basic transformation. It has such a great influence on society and the competitive strength of the Netherlands that we try to organise this strongly from the application and fit in well with science and technology. Critical mass and integration are important, because innovative breakthroughs emerge from this, and that is exactly what we intend to do with the coalition.”