How can we ensure that the fundamental values which we consider important in the Netherlands and Europe, such as privacy, transparency and democracy, are safeguarded in a digital society? How can we make a truly positive contribution to society using AI? A conversation between Geert-Jan Houben, pro-vice rector AI, Data and Digitalisation and leader of the AI Initiative, and Professor Jeroen van den Hoven (TPM), leader of the Digital Ethics Centre. “For twenty years already we in Delft have been taking the lead in the field of combining ethics and engineering. “You want that your innovation contributes to the type of society we want to live in.”

Jeroen van den Hoven leads the TU Delft Digital Ethics Centre and chairs committees such as UWV’s Data Ethics Committee, and the cooperating banks applying AI to combat money laundering. Van den Hoven: “It’s important to emphasise that those committees are multidisciplinary in composition. We always work together with data scientists, as well as lawyers and domain experts.” Geert-Jan Houben adds: “It’s not about ‘solutions’ either. We don’t have a ready-made answer. The idea is that everybody thinks about things together and that the scientist creates a link to practical situations. In the case of AI technology the assumption is sometimes that it’s a technology you can simply deliver to society in a box as it were. Ready-made. But creating AI is not one-way traffic. You can only get a better insight into what does and doesn’t work if you test it and, in that sense, get your hands dirty.”

They do not deny that this way of working also involves risks. Van den Hoven: “So you want to set up a process so that if something does go wrong at some point you can prove that you didn’t start thinking about it just the other day, but that you took all the relevant considerations and legislation into account. And that you can make adjustments in time.” Houben: “That’s precisely the characteristic of the responsible engineer that we want to educate here in Delft. All students at Bachelor, Master or PhD level are therefore given real-life challenges to deal with. Delivering a suitable solution in the field of AI not only means creating a piece of technology that works, but also organising an environment in such a way that makes the solution you deliver suitable.”