Friday 15 January 2021
Ultimate freedom and counterforce
Together with her colleagues, professor of Infrastructuring Urban Futures Karin Pfeffer charts poor areas in developing countries using satellite images. A useful information source to identify needs in those areas. But there is a downside: in India, politicians might use such data to clear slum areas. How do you ensure that other people do not use your research for the wrong purposes? This is an issue that concerns Nicola Strisciuglio, assistant professor of computer science, too. For him, university is the place where you autonomously develop ideas and create ethical awareness among students, in order to 'counterbalance' those dangers.
Karin: 'What brought you from Italy, that lovely country with its amazing food, to the flat lands of the Netherlands?'
Nicola: ‘Ah, now that's a tricky question. I come from Angri, a small town between Salerno and Naples in southern Italy. It has a lot of history, with a medieval castle in the centre. You'd find it interesting too, as an expert in urban planning...'
Karin: 'I'm sure. Protecting cultural heritage is extremely important in urban development.'
Nicola: 'In Italy, I did a double PhD programme, partly in Salerno, partly in Groningen. In the Netherlands, I feel that young researchers have more freedom to develop their own career. I was delighted to be asked to be assistant professor in Twente. It's a fantastic place, better than I could have imagined.'
A relaxed atmosphere
Karin: 'What makes you so enthusiastic?'
Nicola: 'I have the freedom to choose my own research subjects and they really encourage you to work with colleagues outside your department. There's a relaxed atmosphere at the UT. It might sound contradictory, but a relaxed environment helps you produce better work.'
Karin: 'Lots of colleagues I talk to are feeling exhausted after all these months of coronavirus. Have you experienced these past months as stressful too?'
Nicola: 'Of course, it's been a very intensive period for education. But that stress was mainly self-imposed. I want to do everything to the best of my ability, so I did more than what was required. But there was no manager putting pressure on me, that's the big difference.'
Freedom for your own ideas
Karin: 'So, it's important for you to be able to plan your own path.'
Nicola: 'Yes, that's why I work as an academic. You can obviously earn a lot of money in industry, but then you need to work on something that the company has invested in. You aren't free to choose. Which is what I find so interesting about the university. You can independently develop your own ideas.'
Karin: 'Through Shaping 2030, the UT is also asking something of us. What's your view on that? Do you agree with the plans?
Nicola: 'Obviously, I mainly identify with the theme science. These are the years in which I want to lay the foundations of my research. I think that also has something to do with my age and experience. As you mature academically, you are given more scope to consider the wider direction of the UT.'
Karin: 'As a young researcher, I can imagine that you're mainly concerned with your own development, and less with what the university will be doing in ten years' time.'
Nicola: 'That's true. But it's good that young researchers like me know the direction in which the university wants to see us develop. However, I'm not keen on the slogan people first. That reminds me of Trump and Salvini, populists who want to put 'their own people' first. I feel we need to take a wider view - look at the environment, society, our relationships with others. And above all: at the ethical side of our work. There are also risks involved in computer science research. I often mention the example of the self-driving car. It's a fantastic invention, but if you put the same technology in a tank, you have an automatic weapon.'
Karin: 'What do you think is the best way to manage those dangers?'
Nicola: 'The most important thing is that we teach our students about the risks and develop their ethical awareness, so that they do everything they can to prevent technology being misused.'
Karin: 'So, how do you view open science? That we make our work available to others? That also involves the risk that someone will use the technology for the self-driving car to make that tank.'
Nicola: 'I feel it's important to share work as much as possible. But you're right. We must accept that we can never completely prevent those risks, so we need to take precautions by improving student awareness. Is this a dilemma you face too?'
Karin: Yes, I recognise that. With Monica Kuffer, I use satellite images to identify poor areas in developing countries - useful if you want to improve the infrastructure. But in India, politicians might use such data to clear slums. I would feel guilty if my research were misused. I agree that creating awareness is important. And you can choose not to share every detail of your data. Another thing that interests me is: what do you dream of as a researcher?'
Nicola: 'My biggest dream is to make a fundamental contribution to my research field, establish real progress in theory, so that others can build on it.'
Karin: 'At the UT, societal impact is an important theme. Do you feel that people at the UT should mainly do robust fundamental research or concern themselves more with improving society?'
Nicola: 'I feel that the two things are linked. One person will focus more on fundamental work, another more on society. I totally agree with the motto high tech, human touch.'
Karin: 'Where is the human touch in your work?'
Nicola: 'Part of my research concerns social robotics. That means robots which can help elderly people do the washing or remind them to take their medication, for example. I teach the computer to analyse facial expressions, so that it can assess the mood of the user. If the machine can respond to the elderly person's mood, they will accept the robot into their life more easily. I love that. In the future, I hope to be able to totally combine fundamental and applicable research in my work. Today's scientist is no longer confined to the lab.'