The TAISIG speakers - Kenny Meesters
Artificial Intelligence is changing society at lightning speed. New developments happen within the blink of an eye. And Tilburg University is no exception with the rise of TAISIG: The Tilburg University Artificial Intelligence Special Interest Group. TAISIG's goal is to combine, coordinate, and strengthen all AI activities within our knowledge institution. TAISIG Talks and Events, for example, deliver engaging lectures and theme nights with keynote speakers, organised in collaboration with the MindLabs ecosystem. The speakers involved are not just anyone. We are proud to introduce them to you. In this edition of 'The speakers of TAISIG' we'll hear from Kenny Meesters, lecturer and researcher at Tilburg University.
Kenny, we'll start right away. After all, the world of AI won't stand still either. So, who are you and what work do you do?
“My expertise is information management in crisis situations and humanitarian aid. In this field, we examine what information is needed to act properly during a disaster, and the possibilities for fulfilling different needs. Think about figuring out exactly what the damage is, or what specific help is needed. I actually hold a dual role. On the one hand, I research what techniques are used during crises and how effective their deployment is. Think of the automatic analysis of social media messages using AI. A lot of valuable data comes out of this. On the other hand, I apply that data in practice as an information manager for the United Nations or the European Union, for example.
After my education in Technical Business Administration, I entered the corporate world for a while. But during my work as a project manager I quickly realized that the job did not give me enough satisfaction. That is why I decided to continue my studies and followed the master programs Strategic Management and Information Management at Tilburg University. During my follow-up studies, I became impressed with the work of one of the professors: Bartel van der Walle. He focused his research on the humanitarian sector and actively contributed his knowledge. The devastating earthquake in Haiti had just happened. Through Van der Walle, I got in touch with a Dutch aid organization in Haiti, where I eventually completed my graduation research.”
How do you explain what exactly you do to laypeople? Family and friends over drinks, for example.
"I explain that I make sure that the right information, gets to the right person, at the right time. Usually using actual examples. Take a crisis situation like COVID-19, where we have to make a lot of (new) choices all of a sudden. Do I stay home or go out? Will I go hoarding at the supermarket or not? Do I want to meet people at this time or will distance myself socially?
We make many choices on a daily basis for which we have lots of information available. But during a crisis situation, this information is of no use. We cannot lean on existing data from before the crisis: after all, the situation has changed completely for all parties involved. We need to collect data from the new situation as quickly as possible so that we can help each other make the right considerations. So that we can eventually return to the situation before the crisis. For this we use technology and AI; think drones, satellite imagery or social media analysis. After the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, for example, volunteers drew in the differences on satellite images from before and after the disaster. This brought the situation into focus. We also scoured the internet and social media with volunteers for valuable leads. This information was researched and passed on to the UN."
One of your areas of expertise concerns information management in crisis situations. Not the easiest topic to wrap your head around, is it?
"No that's true, but that's what makes it interesting for me. For example, I see a lot of potential in new technologies, such as AI applications to support humanitarian aid. But how do we apply this wisely during a crisis? That is certainly a challenge from time to time. But Tilburg University is incredibly strong in this field. We have the technical knowledge to explore and develop the possibilities of technology. In addition, the knowledge institution's ELSA lab (Ethical, Legal and Societal Aspects of AI lab) has the expertise to assess the additional ethical, social and legal issues. My research addresses the question: what does deployment of technology deliver? This is because the fact that its implementation is technically, legally, ethically and socially possible, permissible and justified does not mean that it actually has a positive and efficient impact on the situation."
What sparked your interest in this subject?
"I have lived in several places abroad where I have seen and learned a lot. For example, during my internship for an insurance company in South Africa, I helped the local people of a township open an Internet café. During a visit to the township, I saw old PCs lying in a corner. I asked if I could tinker with them in my spare time. I got the computers working again. Eventually I opened the internet cafe together with the residents. This is where the fascination was born to do more with technology than just use it in business. And after meeting my professor I was absolutely sure: this is what I'm looking for. Making the right connection between people, information and technologies. Just like with the Internet café. You may have the technology and the people. But you need the right mix and the right information to keep things running.”
Internet cafe on opening night in January 2007
How are you connected to TAISIG?
"There are many different ways we look at AI. With my expertise, I contribute to looking at its deployment rationally. Do we understand what can happen when we deploy it, and what it gives us? In my field, a small miscalculation can have huge consequences, such as help arriving late or ending up in the wrong place. What are the costs and benefits? And when does it become worthwhile to use technology? Everyone associated with TAISIG looks at AI from a different angle, which is very valuable. With that combination, we can also really make an impact.”
What do you hope to achieve with your efforts?
"Making a successful connection between people, information and technologies both in general situations as well as for emergency response in particular. And removing the barriers between the three components around AI research: technology, ELSA and application. I am convinced that Tilburg University has all the knowledge and expertise to do this."
Is this viable in the short term? Or is it still mostly for the future?
"I think in most cases, the broad deployment of AI is a viable option. But as far as I'm concerned, the answer may also be 'no', or 'not yet'. Making a good, workable combination is not always and everywhere a viable option. Using AI is not a must everywhere; the benefits do not always outweigh the costs. In my opinion, it is just as valuable to come to a well-considered decision not to use it in some cases. As long as we do this in a conscious and informed way. And not write it off beforehand because we think it's too scary or don't know enough about it. Or just the opposite. That we use AI applications indiscriminately without thinking about it properly, because it's 'cool'."
What makes a TAISIG meeting worthwhile for you?
"I am not an expert in artificial intelligence myself. Therefore, I find listening to the talks of colleagues with other specialties very interesting. It gives me new insights into what is possible and what the limitations are. And I immediately think about the question: 'What can I add from my field of expertise? The outside world may see AI as one overarching subject. But for us as scientists at TAISIG, it's different. The world of artificial intelligence consists of so many different facets; and each facet in itself is interesting. All the more so when it all comes together.”
Humanitarian Practice in Finland, 2019
What will get your undivided attention in the near future?
"In addition to my work as a researcher, I am also active in the aid sector. For example, at the United Nations and the European Union. In addition, I am in regular contact with various Dutch Safety Regions. So even outside my work at the university, I am involved with information management in crisis situations. Within my field I think there is still a world to be won. We are constantly being confronted with more and more complex crises. Each and every one of them a situation where conflicting interests play a role, information is scarce and the situation is unstable. As a result, we face an uncertain future. I believe that technology such as AI can contribute to stability and to making wise choices, provided it is deployed properly. I hope to be able to dedicate myself to this in the years to come. At, for, and with the students and colleagues at Tilburg University, including TAISIG."