Artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, machine learning: the world of data science is multifaceted. And although even the most practised specialists have yet to fully explore all the potential of their promising disciplines, the latter are already capturing the imagination of the general public. Researchers and entrepreneurs in Brabant are at the forefront in this field when it comes to knowledge development and its application.
The Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (JADS) in 's-Hertogenbosch, a partnership between Eindhoven University of Technology, Tilburg University, the municipality of 's-Hertogenbosch, the provincial authority of North Brabant and the international business community, is the proverbial spider at the centre of this web. But the other knowledge institutions at university and college level in the province also all have their own artificial intelligence and data science courses or institutes. There is hardly a start-up where data science remains ignored and large, established companies are also introducing it one after another.
Which is not surprising. From both an economic and social perspective, data science is here to stay. Society at large agrees: a survey conducted in eleven countries shows that people expect their lives and society to change dramatically as artificial intelligence and robotics become more widely applied.
And they are right. But what they perhaps do not fully realize is that data science is already one of the main driving forces that run today's world. When you access a web page, cookies register what you are looking at and then match it to an appropriate advertisement in a millisecond. Our behaviour is recorded in databases. The economy runs on data. Car manufacturers know more about the behaviour of the driver than the driver himself. And the software used in machines is constantly improved via a smart feedback loop based on the large amounts of operational data generated by the machines themselves.
According to Liesbeth Leijssen, Director Impact at JADS, everyone should be involved in the debate about data science and ethics. “There are many myths about data science. Sometimes people are afraid of what is coming. So we need to paint a realistic picture of data science. We do so by showing how meaningful data science can be in people’s daily lives and by inviting dialogue on the ethical questions associated with data.”
Data science is certainly not just the plaything of researchers and innovative start-ups. It permeates society and its impact will only continue to grow in the years to come. Companies have access to an enormous amount of data, but often do not know how to use that data to create permanent value. Effective exploitation of that data requires both powers of innovation and a broad range of practical skills and theoretical knowledge. Professor Jeroen de Mast, who holds positions at JADS, Waterloo University (Canada) and Holland Innovative, which is based at the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, is well aware of this. “In our course, we try to help students enhance their business processes through data analytics and data engineering in combination with good entrepreneurship.”
Education and training is one thing, but even after that first step the companies in Brabant benefit from further support. The Data Value Center Smart Industry helps entrepreneurs use data to the best effect. This involves optimising existing processes, creating the right preconditions and developing business models using data. The MKB Datalab is an initiative set up by Central Brabant where education and business come together to tackle the challenges associated with datafication in SMEs.
Data science now plays a leading role at all of Brabant's innovation campuses. From medicine development at Pivot Park via smart mobility at Automotive Campus and Medtech at the TU/e and High Tech Campus to smart industry at Gate2: without data science everything comes to a standstill. The Brainport Industries Campus calls itself the ‘factory of the future’ where high tech companies such as KMWE, Anteryon and Yaskawa use data science to help manufacturing industry make significant advances. As a result, manufacturers can produce in a smarter manner and, thanks in part to start-ups such as Unit040, support themselves and their suppliers more effectively when drawing up schedules.
Outside the campuses, start-ups also play an essential role in the transition. For example, the predictive maintenance solutions (machines that predict when maintenance is required) from Pipple in Eindhoven, Cytosmart that uses data science to analyse cells or Protix in Bergen op Zoom, which uses smart algorithms to control the growth process of insects.
Complex operations are not the only area to benefit. De Jong: “In my opinion, this technology is right up there with the steam engine, electricity and the Internet. Like those technologies, it is a true enabler, it makes more things possible. We don’t always realise it, but Artificial Intelligence actually permeates many aspects of our modern lives. For example, we already offer smart shavers that analyse your skin as you shave and adjust the power accordingly. So dismissing this as a hype would be a mistake of historical proportions.”
The success of Brabant's data science initiatives will also depend on funding. Central government plays an important role here, but Brabant itself also invests actively. For example, a Brabant-wide AI coalition in which the provincial authority participates alongside Eindhoven University of Technology, Tilburg University, Interpolis, CZ, DAF Trucks, KPN, Philips, Rabobank, Fontys, TNO, MindLabs and JADS invested around 250 million euros in a series of AI initiatives at the beginning of 2020. Research institute EAISI is the driving force behind this programme.
Every week, companies and organisations approach JADS to discuss future collaboration. Sometimes they are start-ups, on other occasions the party at the other end of the phone line is a major corporation. They are all welcome, says Liesbeth Leijssen. “I find a small student start-up that has developed a search engine which is ready for market launch just as appealing as a large company that needs our help to deploy data science as a tool for investigating deforestation or investigating subversive criminal organisations. Small or large: we all make an impact.”
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