‘Surpassing the brain’: Flanders prepares for artificial intelligence revolution


Established businesses and entrepreneurs are learning how to use AI to their advantage, as Voka and the government roll out action plans

Beyond chatbots

A group of 40 Flemish business people got together in Kortrijk this week for the first meeting of the AI Academy, an initiative to help companies in West Flanders profit from developments in artificial intelligence. They were briefed on the history and possible future of AI, encouraged to be early adopters and introduced to local researchers and entrepreneurs working in the field.

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning are developing at dizzying speed and are playing an increasingly important role in our society,” says Bert Mons, managing director of the Voka Chamber of Commerce and Industry in West Flanders. “There is also a lot of interest in Flanders, but so far not much is being done with it. We want to demystify the subject and also allow our entrepreneurs to gain insights into what this technology could mean for their own business.”

The government of Flanders is also on the case, announcing earlier in October that it has set aside €30 million to back its AI action plan next year. “Flanders can and must be at the forefront of artificial intelligence,” said innovation minister Philippe Muyters, who also sent a message of support to the AI Academy. “Internationally there is already a lot happening, so we should not try to reinvent the wheel. But we do have a lot of trump cards that we can play. It is important to choose the right focus so that we can fully benefit from what the future brings us.”

Concrete applications

Artificial intelligence covers a broad range of technologies where machines are designed carry out thinking tasks usually reserved for humans. To do this, the systems need to be able to analyse data, solve problems, make decisions and learn from past events. The ambition, however, is not just to replicate human thinking, but to surpass it.

Some AI applications are already in use, such as high-speed automated trading systems, internet chatbots and fraud detection in financial markets. Others are within reach, such as self-driving cars. Then there is the dream of robots that behave like humans and can, for example, take over tasks in health care.

While it is easy to get carried away with the potential of artificial intelligence, the AI Academy wants to focus on concrete ideas that can benefit small and medium sized companies right now. “We must not remain stuck with the obligatory examples of self-driving cars and chatbots,” says Mons. “Entrepreneurs want to learn how AI will help them to improve their production processes. A more efficient and faster service. Higher and improved productivity of their employees. Things that artificial intelligence makes possible.”

For Flanders, the greatest opportunities lie primarily in personalised health care, smart mobility and industry 4.0

- Minister Philippe Muyters

The Academy is a collaboration between Voka West Flanders and Howest, the region’s university college. Its first seminar, on the history and pitfalls of AI, was given by Nell Watson, co-founder of Ghent-based body-measurement company QuantaCorp and a “technology philosopher”.

The meetings to come will involve speakers from companies and academia and cover subjects such as data science, human-robot interaction and how business models and leadership might change under the influence of AI.

These briefings, together with the contacts participants will make, should help build “a very concrete foundation for our Flemish entrepreneurs, so that a real AI community is created in West Flanders,” Mons concludes.

The AI Academy has developed in parallel with the government’s AI action plan, but shares some of its aims. Some of the €30m announced by Muyters will go towards further research, in particular supporting programmes that have already demonstrated international excellence, and where there is clear market potential.

Potential is ‘enormous’

Meanwhile, business will be encouraged to take up AI, turning Flanders into a “living lab” for testing new applications. Then there will be a broader effort of awareness raising about the potential of AI and education initiatives to build up skills. In addition, an AI think tank will be set up to address the technology’s ethical implications.

“The potential social and economic impact of AI is enormous,” Muyters said. “For Flanders, the greatest opportunities lie primarily in personalised health care, smart mobility and industry 4.0. If we tackle this evolution quickly and intelligently, we can ensure that Flanders reaps the full benefits.”

There is a groundswell of interest in AI from students, with newspaper De Tijd reporting this week that an advanced master’s programme in artificial intelligence at KU Leuven had grown dramatically from 173 students last year to 259 now. Some 500 students applied to follow the course.

Other universities are also considering developing their AI programmes, including Howest, which is working towards a new bachelor degree in AI.

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