Prof. Dr. Ir. Rinie van Est

AI in the energy transition

For a number of readers, the combination of physicist and political scientist will seem unusual. How did you come to choose these two?

With my studies in physics, I thought that I’d gain an insight into how the world works. However, there’s much more between the heavens and the earth than the laws of physics. As a young researcher, I was caught up in major funding cutbacks twice. These cutbacks caused a lot of suffering among my colleagues and I began to wonder who made the decisions and on what basis. That’s why I went to study political science part-time. My focus: the politics of technology or innovation. This relationship really grabbed me.

And that combination is now also the basis for your scientific career?

t’s the basis of my work as a professor and at the Rathenau Institute. My chair is called Technology Assessment and Governance. I look at the possibilities of technology and the ethical and social implications. The governance part concerns finding collective solutions to collective problems.

You have an impressive list of publications to your name. Which one is most dear to you?

My name isn’t the only one on these. I always find it important to emphasize that I could only do these together with a lot of great, smart people. Uncovering what’s happening in the world and getting to grips with this is a beautiful collective journey of discovery.

I would choose the essay Intimate Technology: The Battle for our Body and Behaviour. We wrote it for a broad audience and it received a lot of attention. It was about the immense influence of information technology on our personal lives. The more technology knows about us, the more human traits it acquires. Consider robots and artificial intelligence. Our phones, for example, have long since ceased to be gadgets but have a profound impact on our way of life. When it comes to medical technology, we understand this and therefore make a lot of demands on that technology. But when we wrote the essay, few people were asking ethical questions about the digitization of our lives. This publication and the later Urgent Upgrade: Protect public values in our digitized society has fortunately fueled that awareness.

An anonymous donor has given a substantial amount via the fund. What are your plans for this contribution? The generous donation makes it possible to finance four years of PhD research. The subject of this research is governance of artificial intelligence in the energy transition. Quite a mouthful, but the basic idea is that global warming is forcing us to switch from fossil to renewable energy sources. In the Netherlands, for example, we want to generate 70% of our electricity from renewable energy by 2030.

Imagine what this means: our electricity network changing enormously from large power stations to hundreds of thousands of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. In order to keep such a system in balance, digital technology is needed that can measures the conditions and collect data. This data must be analyzed and decisions must be made on that basis. AI will then play a role in the future of our energy.

Using this research, we want to identify what role AI could play. In addition, we are looking at the ethical and social questions raised by AI efforts. What about privacy? Can we explain the algorithms used? Who has the final say on the actions of AI? Is this a matter of politics or do we leave decisions in the hands of put it to companies?

Major changes such as these require adjustments to laws and regulations hence, the governance aspect and the final part of this PhD research.

Did this donor tell you why he or she has chosen your projects?

He’s been interested in technological developments all his life, particularly in artificial intelligence and the social and philosophical questions that this raises. Above all, he believes that society should think and speak very carefully about the usefulness and necessity of technology and the desired political direction and societal embedding. With this research, he can contribute to this and does so wholeheartedly. We are delighted to have him on board.

“The University Fund raises money for socially relevant research, but above all finds friends who feel passionately about supporting our work. It’s about science with feeling.”

Which trend or development do you think is currently receiving too little attention in the societal debate or in the media?

There are two: the haste with which we have to undertake the sustainability transition due to global warming – we are racing against the clock – and the control of digitization. We have to take control of the wave of digitization that is engulfing us and shape it based on societal values.

You teach and coach. What, in your view, is the most important lesson that you could give to future generations? Nat King Cole expresses the most important lesson in the song Nature Boy. He sings: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return.” Insights and love go together. And for deep insights, you have to be open to the experiences and feelings of others.

Why has this donation gone through the fund?

There are several ways to receive funding as a university. Through the state, as a grant from the NWO, from the EU or from contract research, for example. Things are different for private individuals. In the United States and Great Britain, more and more wealthy people want to donate money to a university because they have a personal connection with it or because they think the work of that university is important. For individuals like them, there’s a wonderful channel they can use for their personal donation: university funds.

Why do you think that this University Fund is so important?

This University Fund raises money for socially relevant research, but – above all – it finds friends. This is a search for highly personal support for scientific research. It’s therefore always about science with feeling. This is of great importance.