The TAISIG speakers: prof. dr. Ton Wilthagen

24 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. dr. Ton Wilthagen, Professor at Tilburg University.

Ton, 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?
The short answer is that I am Professor of Labour Market Studies at Tilburg University. My field of work? The whole world of working, not working, and everything that goes with it. I'm a sociologist by training, but I'm a multidisciplinary person who really finds everything interesting. That's why I'm very involved with technology and I also do a lot in the media. It's less about becoming famous than about explaining information for all walks of life. I try to make sure, for example, that the message is not just that inflation has gone up, but also: this is what we can do about it. With this in mind, I write regular expert contributions for several newspapers. My broad interests and creativity also push me to get involved in all kinds of other things. I'm bursting with ideas. For example, a few years ago I made a carnival clip. And very recently I wrote the children's book Roosbot, about a girl in the world of AI. I definitely don't sit in an ivory tower. And I can do these things because I have a network of people around me who don't just work out of self-interest. It's great!  

One of your areas of expertise concerns the driving forces that shape the labour market and people's work. Not the easiest topic to wrap your head around, is it?
Above all, it's something that's constantly changing, rapidly so. That makes it all very unpredictable and uncertain. We've seen it just in the last few years; in 2020, the labour market collapsed dramatically due to the Covid, then picked up very quickly, and now, because of geopolitical problems and war, we may be on the brink of another recession. And then there are the changes instigated by technology. Technological developments help determine what the labour market looks like and what people are looking for. So it's not an easy subject, no. But it's incredibly important for everyone. When I started university, I thought I would be a criminologist. But after my studies, I ended up in dismissal law at the University of Amsterdam.  

How do you explain what exactly you do to laypeople? Family and friends over drinks, for example. I don't tell them I'm a professor. I don't find ranks and positions all that interesting. We're just doing a job that we happen to be good at. So I always tell people that I work at the university and deal with labour and technology. That I research and teach. This almost always results in a good discussion. But at parties, I mostly end up talking about innovations within my field. That's the most fun to talk about! 

What sparked your interest in this subject? 
I wasn't very into it during my studies. But I think I was ultimately captivated by it because the subject is so prominent in everyone's lives, including my own. I inherited my work ethic from my family. My father didn't stop working until he was 73, after first trying three times without success. But I'm also very interested in the problems people have in getting onto the labour market, and in the changes between dynamics and social cohesion. 

How are you connected to TAISIG?
You can look at Artificial Intelligence in many different ways. From both the hard, factual side, and from the humanities. I try to contribute to a broader view at Tilburg with my sociological slant, as well as some distinctive perspective. I also address this in TAISIG Talks. And I talk about it every now and then. 

Since when has that been the case?
I've been involved since day one. The TAISIG programmes touch very much on the things I do and think about. I actually first got involved in a kind of neighbouring initiative. There's been a lot of contact with Emile Aarts and the others since then. I've become a link in the chain. 

What do you hope to achieve with your efforts?
Artificial intelligence is not actually about technology. It's about ourselves. Technology works in our minds. Scary? Well, it's our own fault. We are the ones who control it; technology is neutral in itself. AI can be a 'devil in the device' but also a blessing. And I'm very much a believer in the latter. All of us as humans have subjects and goals that we consider important, but we're not satisfied with their progress. I hope we can use AI to upload those human values into new technologies to realise the values that we humans fail to execute. Take the climate crisis, for example. Or the current pandemic, which we may have caused ourselves. This is a way to advance the planet and society. 

Is this viable in the short term? Or is it still mostly for the future?
Well... It's above all very urgent and pressing. There will come a time when technology will stand on its own two feet. Before then, we as 'parents' must raise it well. It's important though not easy. After all, technology is a bit like a hammer: You can bash someone's head in with it or build a house with it. I want the latter. 

What makes a TAISIG evening worthwhile for you? 
When it serves to inspire and create new ideas, but also when the conversations are not just philosophical in nature and really encourage action. I often notice this need in the audience as well: there are lots of questions about the practical applications of AI. It forces me and the other speakers not to make general comments, but to go a step further. 

During a TAISIG Talk like this, do you just provide information? Or is there something in it you too? It's latter, definitely! Everyone who participates is engaged with the subject in a different way. I always come across things that I can use in my own work, precisely because it's so multidisciplinary. 

Who do you hope to achieve with your contribution to TAISIG Talks?
I am under no illusion that we can change the world just with TAISIG Talks. But we do try to establish links with other platforms and connect people with the talks. After all, that's the only way we can ultimately start a movement. My contributions are mostly about ways of providing information and putting things in perspective. A small piece of the solution for the bigger picture. Only once we know how we work ourselves can we work properly with artificial intelligence. If the earth's flame goes out, we won't need to organise any more TAISIG Talks either... 

What will get your undivided attention in the near future?
I'm currently very affected and inspired by the situation in Ukraine. Given that we're still facing such huge and bloody problems in the twenty-first century, it's perhaps naive to think that there is a solution. But I'd like to discuss it further and ask how we can augment human intelligence with artificial intelligence. I'll continue to consider which direction we should go in alongside my Tilburg colleagues. I also hope that my Roosbot book and the accompanying lesson plan will spark discussions in primary school classrooms. Children have no idea that these are TAISIG discussions, of course. But the most important thing is that they are being held by the youngest generation too. 

Want to learn more about Ton Wilthagen's 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