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Netherlands coalition aims to demystify artificial intelligence

Dutch citizens need to learn about the impact of artificial intelligence on society and their lives, says the Netherlands AI Coalition

The AI Act, a proposed European law on artificial intelligence (AI), will require governments to actively participate in developing technology to ensure public values and citizens’ rights are incorporated into any use of AI. Key to the collaboration with society will be citizens’ understanding of the technology, and so the Netherlands AI Coalition (NL AIC) has established the AI Parade to enable a dialogue about AI and its impact on society and people’s lives.  

“When deliberating on how to reach as many citizens as possible to engage in debate about AI, we chose libraries because they reach millions of Dutch citizens each year,” said Náhani Oosterwijk of the NL AIC.

As coordinator of the human-centred AI working group, Oosterwijk is also involved in the AI Parade. The Parade’s goal is to engage in dialogue with people about the impact and importance of AI in Dutch society. “We focus on the human-centred part of the technology,” said Oosterwijk. “What is in this for the people? How can it contribute to their lives?”  

By creating the AI Parade, the NL AIC is backing up a warning given by the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) in a report last year that there is an urgent need to demystify AI.

Stefan Leijnen is coordinator of the research and innovation working group at the NL AIC and chairman of the international working group. He is also a professor of AI at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht. “We need to balance people’s concerns about AI and the opportunities it comprises,” he said. “We need to show citizens that AI holds much promise, for example in diagnostic abilities in healthcare. The AI Parade provides an opportunity to share knowledge about AI and the opportunities it holds.” 

Everyone needs to have a basic understanding of AI, said Leijnen. “The problem is that it is tough to establish the impact of any technology at the start of its development,” he added. “Take electronics and the personal computer, for example. At the time of its invention, nobody could have realised how big its impact on society would be and how the computer would define a completely new economy and change social structures.”  

The world is at that point for AI, in the sense that everyone realises it will be significant, but what the impact will be, nobody knows yet, said Leijnen. “There are two ways you can handle this. Firstly, you can adopt the new technology so completely and wholeheartedly that you are blind to any possible risk. Secondly, you can try to stop it out of fear of it.

“But this is a development that will not be stopped or reversed, so either way you will be in for a rude awakening. That is why demystification is so important. We want to share a complete story in a qualitative and human-centred way.”

Read more about AI in the Netherlands

The AI Parade is called a “dialogue” for a reason, said Oosterwijk. “We won’t just be sharing information – we also want to hear from Dutch citizens,” she said. “We will research how people currently think about AI and how they would want to see themselves co-exist with AI in the future. Because NL AIC is represented in virtually every sector in the Netherlands, there is a solid ecosystem to return this information.

“We aim to reach at least one million citizens with the Parade, but the bigger goal is to have the AI Parade mature after our initial Parade ends next summer. We feel the AI Parade will be considered successful if other sectors and the seven different AI hubs within the NL AIC take on the task of sharing knowledge and information, and creating a dialogue with society. It needs to have a snowball effect – all we do is initiate it and hope it keeps evolving and reaching people.” 

AI is regarded as pretty much a “black box” technology, more so than with most other ICT systems. “The complexity of AI makes it important to thoroughly think through frameworks, such as with legal and ethical issues,” said Leijnen. “You also need to think about the interpretation of those frameworks and make decisions on how you will develop the technology. Who is responsible for creating algorithms? Will systems be developed mostly by businesses with a profit motive?”

Leijnen stressed that it takes a quadruple helix to figure out how best to build systems like this. “When the business world, government, knowledge institutions and citizens come together, you can have a decent discussion about how to go about developing this new technology,”  he said.

This brings us to the ELSA Labs, said Oosterwijk. This unique initiative by the NL AIC is being watched with great interest abroad. “Each lab is completely independent, so we have no ownership of the labs – we have only initiated them,” she said.

Quality mark

The NL AIC does, however, provide a quality mark – the NL AIC Label – by defining goals for the labs in order to call themselves ELSA Labs. All the labs work on similar themes that revolve around AI’s ethical, legal and societal aspects (ELSA). 

“We currently have 22 official ELSA Labs,” said Oosterwijk. “They are research labs, so a university must be involved. But we constantly strive for the quadruple helix. Most labs consist of multiple partners and even huge consortia that all focus on the theme of that specific lab.”  

Oosterwijk gave the example of one of the labs focused on an efficiency issue: “How can we use AI to improve the night care of multiply mentally disabled people, in a way they don’t need to be handled or checked by nurses in the middle of the night?”

Each ELSA Lab focuses on its own area of application, she said. “This creates big differences between them, so the challenge is to ensure that, despite these differences in content, the labs don’t become silos, but have plenty of opportunity to exchange knowledge in an easy way that contributes to putting the basic principles of the ELSA concept into practice.” 

To strengthen the Netherlands’ position and to make the most of the opportunities of AI, a long-term programme called AiNed has been drawn up by the Netherlands AI Coalition. Most labs that are granted ELSA status have a duration of six years and are, for the most part, funded by the Dutch National Growth Fund, in which the government is investing €20bn between 2021 and 2025 for projects that ensure long-term economic growth.  

Athough the European Commission has asked all its member states to develop a plan for AI, the Dutch way of collaboration and participation, polderen, is unique, said Leijnen. “In the Netherlands, we are used to consulting everyone involved and reaching a consensus,” he said. “This is the way we built the NL AIC and the ELSA Labs. This is being watched with much interest from abroad because you can create something big when you collaborate.”  

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