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Data plays an increasingly important role in our daily lives. What effects and consequences is this having? How are citizens adapting to the new developments? These questions are key to the research of Claes de Vreese, distinguished research professor of Artificial Intelligence, Data & Democracy at the University of Amsterdam's Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences.

de Vreese, Claes
Claes de Vreese: 'The new developments are both troubling and positive at the same time'

Data and automated processes are everywhere. One recent example would be automated journalism, where computers independently write articles on the basis of given information without the involvement of an actual journalist. UK press agency Press Association even offers articles written by an algorithm through a paid service.

As a researcher, which aspects of Artificial Intelligence, Data & Democracy interest you most?

‘There's an enormous amount of data, automated processes and self-learning mechanisms out there, and it's having a growing impact on our democratic processes. We're interested in finding out how these processes work, what effects they are having and how citizens are adjusting to the new developments.’

Could you offer some examples on how artificial intelligence and data impact our society?

‘For example, the media use algorithms based on our individual data to provide us with personalised news. Political parties also use data when communicating with citizens. This helps them to determine which messages to emphasise – or ignore – when targeting specific voters.’

That sounds quite ominous.

‘The outcomes can also be positive if you provide information tailored to citizens' needs. A 23-year-old is more likely to be interested in securing their first mortgage, while someone in their sixties will be more interested in pension plans. However, there are definitely downsides. For example, the sense of a shared public arena is coming under threat as we all receive personalised information. A lot of messaging is also being published through platforms that are difficult or impossible to verify, such as Facebook or closed channels such as WhatsApp. These developments also increase the risk of disinformation. In short: the new developments are both troubling and positive at the same time. Our research project aims to spark debate on the issue.’

That would require an entirely different approach to research.

‘That's true, researchers will have to step out of their comfort zone and apply new techniques, methods and data types. For example, we used plug-ins to monitor our trial subjects' browsers and determine which news items they are presented with. This research ideally calls for real interdisciplinary cooperation between social and behavioural scientists, ethicists, lawyers and data scientists.’

As the distinguished research professor in Artificial Intelligence, Data & Democracy, what do you aim to have achieved in a year's time?

‘By then, we should have anchored the subject in the faculty; the education and research activities at all disciplines should devote attention to the issue. We also aim to promote digital society's role in the faculty’s curricula, ensuring that data and digitisation feature more prominently in our education. As social and behavioural scientists, we are actively participating in the UvA's comprehensive AI initiative. The UvA leads the Netherlands in research on citizens and the human aspects of AI.’

This is the first interview in a series in which we introduce the four distinguished research professors of the faculty.