ICT: always political

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Christine Bel is Department Manager Engineering Systems and Services at TU Delft and has twelve years of experience working in politics, namely in the city council in Delft. Ahead of the RightBrains Tech Talk on 17th May, where Christine will deliver a keynote lecture, she shared some of her thoughts on the relationship between digitalisation and politics, the importance of building bridges between different sectors, and the ethics of artificial intelligence. 

Christine was one of the first students of Artificial Intelligence (AI) when the first programmes were conceived in the 1990s. She has since held many related roles throughout her career, from working on innovative expert systems at Rabobank, to consulting in knowledge engineering, to leading ICT at the Netherlands Forensic Institute. In addition to her technical knowledge and experience, Christine has an active interest in politics, and became a freelancer in 2012 in order to make time to pursue this work. Given her background in both ICT and politics, she has a deep understanding of how technological and political developments can and should relate to one another.

The right knowledge leads to better questions

Christine believes that with the rapid digitalisation of public services and daily life, there is a need for more technical knowledge in governmental spaces, especially in relation to artificial intelligence due to its widespread implementation. Politicians are making many decisions about rules pertaining to AI and digitalisation without always having the right understanding. “There should be basic knowledge amongst most parliamentarians themselves; they should be aware of the importance of AI. Often, on the one hand there are people who are really enthusiastic, who find the idea innovative and exciting, who want to dive straight in, but they might not think about the consequences. On the other hand, there are people who are afraid, who think AI is dangerous, who don’t understand what it is, so try to avoid it altogether. I think you need people who know the difference, who can understand whether any given application would be an opportunity or a threat.” Christine believes that because parliamentarians often have their own specialisms, for the most a basic training would be sufficient. This would lead to better judgement, and, “if you have basic knowledge, you can then ask the relevant questions to the real experts.” In addition, every party should have a spokesperson with more extensive ICT knowledge.

Politics in ICT: it matters

It’s not just about technically educating people who are already in politics, but attracting more technically-minded individuals to the political landscape. “People who study law, economics, or history tend to be more interested in politics, and therefore they become the politicians. Natural scientists or quantum researchers are often less likely to enter politics, but when you look at the pace of digitalisation in society, it’s becoming more and more clear that you should be interested in politics as a person working in ICT and tech. It matters now. Computer science used to be an isolated academic field, but now it’s ubiquitous, and it’s really relevant for everyone.”

Diversifying the field

Christine hopes that the academic field of AI will become more accessible in the near future. She believes that diversity is necessary in the broadest sense of the word here, and hopes to see an increase in collaboration between sectors, so that people with diverse interests and skills can work together. “To make it work, you need people to make connections to other fields. The more different people there are working on this, the more perspectives are brought to the table, and the more value is added to the decisions that are made. I think women are particularly good at making these connections. Perhaps it comes from nurture and upbringing, or being able to see things from others’ perspectives. Perhaps it’s because women are often interested in a multiplicity of subjects – this was my problem, I thought everything was interesting! In the end though, having different skills and interests helps things come together in a worthwhile way.”

So despite AI having connotations of an impersonal realm where computers take the lead, Christine shows that both people and diversity are still crucial: “The interesting thing about AI is that people from very different backgrounds are drawn together, people interested in society, in psychology, in law, in linguistics. You can see this diversity where I work now; there are really technical people, there are philosophers, there are social scientists, and you can see that when they work together, the output becomes really worthwhile.”

 Optimists, opportunists, realists

However when people are involved, there will always be bias and differences in opinion. Therefore we need to ensure there are always realists working in the fields of ICT and politics. “The academics who create the concepts are most often optimistic; they’re idealists, they think of all the great and noble things that could be done with their idea. Then there are opportunists who just want to make money, for example the big tech corporations. So you also need people who can spot the downsides, the risks, those who can work out where something may go wrong – these are the realists, who work out how we can prevent mistakes and make sure we implement concepts in the right way.”

Ethical digitalisation

Doing things the right way brings into play the question of ethics; what might an ethical implementation of AI look like? How can politics maintain an ethical stance? These are important questions, and we can learn from recent history to help us answer them. “In the late 1990s, there was an experiment with a system that gave recommendations about which movies you liked. This is now very common – everyone has this on their Netflix account. We thought it was a great development, and it was in many ways, but today we can also reflect on the downsides. You risk being in a really small bubble if you only look at the information fed to you from these algorithms, and risk having a narrow vision of the world. In 1998 we didn’t think of this, but now we have the chance to. Considering the ethics and regulation of AI is so important to make it work without these downsides.”

Christine entered her studies of Artificial Intelligence with the question in mind: ‘Is it ethical to study AI?’ “My friend said to me at the time, ‘maybe that’s exactly why you should go and study AI, because you are already thinking about the ethics!’” Given the powerful and sometimes worrying role that big tech companies play in making the rules in the interests of their profits, it’s crucial that people from diverse educational and social backgrounds, with an interest in ethics, and with a commitment to politics, are working in the field of ICT, in order to ensure a hopeful, regulated, and positive contribution to the digitalisation of society.

Meet Christine during our Tech Talk on 17 May about Government & politics in the digital age.