At MindLabs, the university’s new showpiece, man and machine come together
Behind Tilburg Central Station, right next to the LocHal, a new building is rising. That building will soon house MindLabs, the showpiece of innovative Tilburg. The university will have collaboration centers there in the fields of digital technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence.
The building is still in scaffolding, construction workers busily walking back and forth. But when MindLabs is completed, it will be more than just a building: it will be a new breeding ground where people, ideas, and techniques come together. Tilburg University will soon be one of the five “residents” of the building, which will also house Fontys University of Applied Sciences, Onderwijsgroep Tilburg/ROC Tilburg, DPG Media—the publisher of the Brabants Dagblad—and WPG Zwijsen.
Construction on MindLabs began in 2020, and it was supposed to be completed last summer. But the coronavirus crisis threw a spanner in the works and caused delays, postponing completion a few times.
It is not only the knowledge institutions that are participating; the City of Tilburg has also been involved in MindLabs from the beginning, and at a later stage the Province of North Brabant also joined in. Tilburg and Brabant are eager to play a role in the field of progressive digital technology and data science.
Artificial Intelligence is the main ingredient in the dazzling cocktail that MindLabs is going to offer society. Artificial intelligence is the magic word opening many doors these days. The university was already firmly committed to this with its participation in the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (JADS) and now, therefore, with MindLabs. But what exactly does that entail? What will soon happen in that new “lab” and how will it contribute to the ins and outs of the university?
Mirjam Siesling is program manager on behalf of Tilburg University. Enthusiastically, she talks about the new collaboration. It should become a community where education, research, and interactive technology meet on a daily basis. And in this way, they hope to start benefiting from each other and all that the latest technology has to offer: “At Tilburg University, we already have a platform for AI activities within the university (TAISIG). And with MindLabs, Tilburg University also wants to start collaborating with partners outside our university. These AI projects focus on the relationship between humans and technology. So technology alone does not bring universal happiness, it’s about the interaction between data, technology and society.”
This is also emphasized by professor Max Louwerse, co-initiator of MindLabs. It’s not just about the technical aspects of AI, about the data and algorithms, and improving them: “MindLabs is mainly also about the interaction between cognitive processes of humans on the one hand and artificial brains on the other: How do ‘human minds’ and ‘artificial minds’ interact, and how can they interact ever better, that is the essence of MindLabs.”
Behind the scenes, MindLabs is already warming up. Louwerse leads the first project, ViBE, which started in 2018. Virtual Humans in the Brabant Economy develops virtual characters (avatars) that can interact with the user for healthcare training. And in 2020, five PhD researchers, together with project manager Ilse Souhail, started the MasterMinds project that Louwerse acquired with external funding. That project, too, will soon be housed in the new MindLabs building.
One of those PhD researchers, Evy van Weelden, is working in the Masterminds project Neurophysiology and VR in Aerospace with the Royal Air Force and the company multiSIM BV on interactive technology where flight simulations are developed in VR environments. You learn to fly at your desk, so to speak. During those simulations, pilots learn how to handle the controls of a plane or helicopter.
The purpose of the research is to collect biometric and neurophysiological data from the pilots during “flights” and to find patterns in that data. In turn, that data will be compared to the pilot’s actual “flight performance” in the expensive physical simulators at Air Force Base. This allows the researchers to gain insight into the different modes of learning employed by the trainees. The results are then fed back to the flight simulator software, so that, ultimately, each individual trainee is offered the best possible learning path.
In MindLabs, that interplay between humans and AI technology is the focus. The PhD researchers have already begun using their knowledge of AI to help companies and organizations collect, organize, and process their data.
Therefore, collaboration is key. Other organizations provide the technology and the target groups, and Tilburg University provides the knowledge in the field of cognitive science. In that respect, MasterMinds is a foretaste of the many forms of collaboration still in the pipeline within MindLabs.
Mirjam Siesling: “We have our own knowledge and expertise, and if we can complement them with the knowledge and skills of others, we can be even better in the field of AI.” As an example, Siesling mentions the collaboration with Breda University of Applied Sciences, which specializes, among other things, in so-called immersive gaming, the experience of being “immersed in virtual worlds.”
By applying BUas’s gaming technology in virtual reality environments and combining it with Tilburg University’s social knowledge, you can create new applications.
Human brain and machines
Knowledge of how the human mind works is essential to research. This attention to the mind was once the exclusive domain of philosophers, and also fodder for much speculation. Since science began to focus on empirical research, first in psychology and later in neurobiology and cognitive science, more and more evidence-based knowledge has become available about how our human brain works.
Does that also mean that soon a human brain can be replaced by machines, and AI will take our place? Can computers and algorithms understand things the way humans do? These kinds of questions have been around since the rise of computers in the middle of the last century. Alan Turing, a pioneer in computer science, even translated that question into a so-called Turing test, an experiment in which the “intelligence” of a machine can be tested.
For professor Louwerse, that question of the so-called intelligence of machines is not at all relevant. “Do we ourselves understand how we make meaning?” is his brisk answer to that question. “What matters is how AI processes can connect with human mental processes and vice versa: can we understand the AI processes and how can humans interact with those processes? That’s the vision behind MindLabs: where human and artificial minds meet.
Applied or fundamental?
Of course it is fun and instructive that such a collaboration yields new applications, but Tilburg University is an educational and research institution. What do such projects contribute to fundamental knowledge? And do companies want to share their data with other partners, or do they anxiously stay on top of their new gold mine?
Mirjam Siesling: “We work with Interpolis, for example. That insurer has a huge mountain of customer data. As researchers, we can develop new innovative algorithms and apply them to social data, of course respecting all privacy.”
In addition, the projects provide new data against which researchers can test new hypotheses and thus actually see whether a theoretical approach is correct or needs to be adjusted. For MindLabs and thus also for the university, the data are again very important because they can provide further answers to fundamental questions and to further theory building.
Business does not set the agenda
Professor Louwerse: “It is a misconception that there is a difference between fundamental and applied research. The difference between fundamental and applied research is time. Applied research always contains a fundamental component and in fundamental research we will always have to ask ourselves what the potential benefit to society can be.”
Evy Van Weelden also emphasizes that it is not just about applying knowledge. Her research, under Louwerse’s supervision, focuses on fundamental knowledge of (neuro)physiological processes. With this research, she hopes to obtain her PhD in 2025. In this research, she is able to both test a number of hypotheses in the target population and explore a number of new applications. In this way, her research contributes to theory building in the field of human-algorithm interaction.
“In doing so, it is also not the case that the business community sets the agenda,” continues Louwerse. “We want to connect better to the needs of society, but that does not mean that the business community determines the research question; we do that. What MindLabs stands for is that we can find each other better and faster.”
When the building is completed soon, MindLabs will hopefully become a major attraction. “We are creating a whole new ‘impact infrastructure,'” Siesling explains: “The building will have lab facilities and educational facilities. And the projects, the events, and the semi-finished products as a whole will, in turn, provide an impetus for research by university lecturers looking for partners.”
With MindLabs as its calling card, Tilburg University is also putting itself on the map as an AI institute. “With the Cognitive Science & Artificial Intelligence program, the Bachelor’s and Master’s in Data Science, with JADS, and the DAF Technology Lab, we in Tilburg are the largest AI educator in the Netherlands,” said Louwerse: “While the university always portraits itself as an alpha and gamma institute, we have also become a serious beta player with our AI research and education. We are a much broader university than our administrators sometimes want to believe. That could be expressed a little more often!”
When the move from the Deprez Building to the new building soon takes place, MindLabs will be scaled up to four innovative research labs in one fell swoop. The labs will converge on the first floor with a café and central hall. On the second floor of the building the work and meeting spaces will be situated. But when that will happen is the question. The “grand opening” has already been postponed several times, and at the time of writing it looks like the new building will not be completed until next summer (in Dutch). So some patience is required from researchers and those interested.
Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel