The TAISIG speakers: prof.mr. Corien Prins

03 June 2022

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, delivers 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 Prof. Corien Prins, Professor at Tilburg University.

Corien, 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?
I have been a professor at Tilburg University since 1994. I have always taught 'Law and Technology' there, currently one day a week. My main position is Chair of the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). In addition to this managerial role, I also have a substantive role there; I take on all advisory projects in the area of digitalisation. These involve themes like digital disruption and artificial intelligence.

'The legal aspects of computerisation' is your area of expertise. Not the easiest topic to wrap your head around, is it?
The subject was fairly straightforward in the early days. It was about software contracts, intellectual property, and privacy issues. But now it touches on almost everything. It cuts across all areas of law. From liability to administrative and criminal law. This makes it complicated, but at the same time incredibly interesting.

How do you explain what exactly you do to laypeople? Family and friends over drinks, for example. 
I often ask them if they order things online, and then: what if it doesn't arrive, or you receive something you didn't order at all... Do you have the same rights as if you had made your bought from a brick-and-mortar shop? These kinds of issues are - in very simple terms - what I deal with every day. I just moved up to think about certain concepts on a scientific level. Questions like whether individuals, including police officers and political leaders, should be prosecuted if they post racist and anti-Semitic statements in WhatsApp groups. The important question here is whether those apps count as 'private communication'. 

What sparked your interest in this subject?
I actually ended up in this field by accident; my fascination came later. After college, I wanted to be able to support myself. So I became a student assistant in the newly established Department of Law and Computer Science at Leiden University. That's where it started. When I read the newspaper now, I love to think about how certain issues are legally constituted. For example, I once wrote a piece on the following comparison. If you see a child fall into the water, but you do nothing and the child subsequently drowns, you are negligent. But what if you are a teacher and you get a suspicion through the digital world that one of your students wants to commit suicide. And you do nothing. What does this make you?

How are you connected to TAISIG?
I've spoken at recent TAISIG events, but it's about more than just those moments for me. These events are just a tool to establish a community of people who help, inspire, and move each other forward. TAISIG provides a nice opportunity for cross-pollination. For example, at the TAISIG Talk in February, I presented the WRR report 'Mission AI, The New System Technology'. I spoke about AI developments in various fields and how we in the Netherlands can join in with the 'big players'. We then reflected on this from other perspectives.

Since when has that been the case? 
It all happened by chance. I have known Emile Aarts for a long time. When I was dean of Tilburg Law School, he was dean at Eindhoven University. At the time, we were on a national committee together and said to each other: why don't our faculties work together? After all, we were both responsible for developing new forms of education. This was the start of JADS, the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science. And that's how I ended up at TAISIG. So I can't really name a specific moment. 

What do you hope to achieve with your efforts? 
Lots of things. First of all, I think the TAISIG events are a wonderful tool for sharing information. This is important because I see it as my job to pass on my knowledge to others. I don't have to make a lawyer out of you, but I do want to inspire you, as I always say. If I that's the case, then it's been worth my while. And, as far as I am concerned, a TAISIG meeting is successful when I have met interesting people and received feedback. For example, the type of questions after my Talks tell me if I need to explain something differently so that I can get my message across better. But most of all, I like a challenge. I find it far too easy to just stay in my own little patch. Looking over the fence and putting up the fence together is much more exciting. I need other disciplines to develop my thinking about law and technology. If I want to get all the content right, then other people are essential. I can always look things up in the literature, but that's not what it's all about. It's much more fun to actually meet each other. And that, of course, also works the other way around. Interdisciplinarity is so important! We can only advance our basic knowledge by joining forces.

Is this viable in the short term? Or is it still mostly for the future? 
Strictly speaking, we will never be done because the world is never finished. There will always be new issues. That's why TAISIG should not be about achieving a particular end goal. We just need a good toolkit as we make our way into the future. This creates something and leads to new developments in turn. That toolkit has to be qualitatively and scientifically sound. That's what we're working on together.

What makes a TAISIG event worthwhile for you? 
When I feel that people are increasingly willing and able to leave their own little patch and realise that these are important topics to think about together and learn about from each other. In fact, this is crucial if you look at how technology is currently changing and dominating society. I am happy when I see us taking steps in this direction.

During a TAISIG Talk like this, do you just provide information? Or is there something in it for you too? 
No, it's really about exchanging information. I always go home wiser than when I arrived.

What are the best questions to be asked during a lecture on this topic?
As a scientist, you sometimes reason normatively based on long recognised public values and fundamental rights. So you might say, for example, that we need to do something about our huge dependence on the Big Five tech companies. According to principles of freedom, individuality, and so on. During a Talk like that, you'll then be asked: Okay, but how do we achieve that? How are we going to change that world? How do we address it? I don't find explaining the law that exciting. But I'll happily discuss these 'how' questions any time!

What will get your undivided attention in the near future? 
I am on the editorial board of the Dutch law journal Nederlands Juristenblad. Today, for example, I'm writing an editorial related to the war in Ukraine. Although Russia has only recently invaded, Russian cyber-attacks on Ukraine have been ongoing for years. In 2017, for example, hackers spread ransomware through hacked Ukrainian accounting software. This is an interesting case in terms of insurance. Several companies around the world suffered billions in losses as a result, but the courts recently ruled that these cyber attacks from a few years ago cannot be classified as an act of war. And insurers must, therefore, pay out to the companies affected at the time. It would be different if it had been an act of war. Meanwhile, the situation between Russia and Ukraine has changed and there is a physical war. That begs the question of whether the courts would rule differently now. I like to put my thoughts about such current events on paper.

Want to learn more about Corien Prins' field of expertise? Or see what a Special Interest Group theme meeting might look like? Watch the TAISIG Talks here. Will we see you at the next edition?