If the corona crisis makes something clear to us, it is that the solutions of the past no longer work for today’s problems. But to achieve those new solutions and create real innovations that benefit society, something has to change in the way we look at the world. Curiosity, the basis for everything we do at Innovation Origins, is crucial, as the research of Danae Bodewes also shows. In a series of interviews, she talks to curious types who each in their own way provide the building blocks for a curious life. Here is the complete series so far. NB: This interview took place before the corona pandemic.
Rudy van Belkom has a strong interest in the future and wants to leave the world better than he found him. For this, he designed Het Nieuwe Kiezen (The New Voting). IO readers already know Rudy from his vision on a social interpretation of AI. The interview for the story you are reading right now took place long before that, to be precise 2 days before the elections of 20 March 2019. It was the ideal moment for a warning about the seriousness of the polarization in the Netherlands. A warning that is more topical than ever.
Curious types : Rudy van Belkom (35) is an AI specialist, future researcher, entrepreneur, initiator of Het Nieuwe Kiezen, author and speaker.
I interviewed Rudy about his job as a future researcher for the Stichting Toekomstbeeld der Techniek. He did research for this foundation for a year and a half on the influence of AI [Artificial Intelligence, more about his role within it in this interview] on decision making in the future. In addition, Rudy of course talks about his curiosity or curiosity as he calls it.
What does curiosity mean to you?
For this, I first have to say something about how my view on curiosity relates to the definition of curiosity. Curiosity is an abstract concept, just like intelligence, creativity, and consciousness. In my research on AI, I have spoken with several neurologists. They indicate that we know very little about our brains in that respect. Especially when it comes to the localization of such big concepts. They are words we use for things we don’t understand ourselves. How curious is someone? How do you measure that? In which part of the brain does this take place and does it make us unique?
I am more related to ‘curiositism’ than to curiosityRudy van Belkom
For me personally, curiosity is about keeping on asking questions. Where less curious people think a first answer is fine, more curious people won’t settle for this. ‘Why’ is a common word in the vocabulary of curious people. For me, curiosity is looking for explanations. I am less of the experimental curiosity; trial and error. I am a thinker and in that respect more related to ‘curiositism’ than to curiosity.
My job as a researcher at Stichting Toekomstbeeld der Techniek fits in well with this. For my research, I have to ask a lot of questions. How does AI relate to human intelligence? And what does this mean for humanity? I continue to be driven by my curiosity. Every time I come across something. I think curiosity is a driving force. A force that could be expressed in a formula.
How curious do you find yourself? Do you find yourself more curious than average?
Yes, I dare say so. A lot of people accept that things are the way they are. As a child and adolescent, I had a hard time with it. I was quite allergic to the answer: “it’s just the way it is”. …Nothing is just ‘like it is’! Or the answer “that’s a feeling I have”. I still have trouble with that. Where does that feeling come from? What’s it based on?
My life is more exploratory research than trial and error. At The New Voting, I was curious about how to vote differently. I thought about it for three years. But I still use the animation video I made four years ago. If I had developed it very impulsively, I could now throw it in the wastebasket. Furthermore, my job for me is pure curiosity.
How did your fascination for the future begin?
I have been an exploratory researcher from an early age. The first clear anecdote is from my high school years, about 20 years ago. For societal studies, which is in fact about sociology, social developments, and socio-critical thinking, I had to write a report about the internet that was just on the consumer market at the time. The title of my report was ‘The Internet: curse or blessing?’ Now, 20 years after that moment, this question is more relevant than ever. In retrospect, this was my first exploration of the future. I didn’t realize that at the time. It was only when I started this job that I thought: oh, that made sense; that research also had to do with trends. In the end, I had an average of 10 out of 10 on my final list for societal studies. Now with AI, I’m actually dealing with the same question. I look at AI from different angles. I do not form an opinion. Things are allowed to raise questions.
You think, speak and write nuanced in blogs and interviews. Is it true that you are mainly interested in scenario planning and less in forecasting and backcasting?
That depends on the type of issue. I use all methods for my research. But for my own type of curiosity, forecasting does indeed hardly occur. Backcasting fits, this is in fact reverse scenario thinking; what paths are there to get there? For issues such as the energy transition, backcasting is more logical. It is fun to describe multiple scenarios. But how do we get there? There are multiple paths leading to Rome; there is no one truth.
Does that make you more of a shaper or a builder?
Primarily, I’m a shaper. I like to put the dot on the horizon. The New Voting is such an example. I believe in long-term things. I’m not very commercial. Friends once told me that if I had invested all the time I spent on the New Voting in something commercial, I’d be rich now. It’s not that exciting for me. My head doesn’t work that way.
I am a pragmatic visionary, an optimistic pessimist and a spiritual pragmatist.Rudy van Belkom
So I’m primarily a shaper, but also a builder. I understand that I have to build NOW. I am not only a dreamer. This is one of the many contradictions of my person. I am a pragmatic visionary, an optimistic pessimist, and a spiritual pragmatist. Building also gives me energy. I am happy that my work is not only about being curious but that after 1.5 years I also have to deliver something.
I’ve been doing it for so long that it no longer feels like a technique or a trick. I have a funnel model in my head. This is my way of framing. I’ve been setting up my own projects for 10 years now. In the beginning, the funnel was still very wide. Then I allowed myself to do the most diverse things I liked. I did everything: thinking about flexible holidays, writing science fiction. Now the funnel is narrower and the frames are getting closer and closer to each other within which the activity should fit. Whenever I like something now, I wonder: will this take me any further? If not, it falls outside the funnel. Otherwise, three lives wouldn’t be enough for me to do everything I find interesting.
The funnel helps, I stick to it. Besides that, for me ‘a deal is a deal’. To me, a deadline is literally a dead end. I then finish my work.
Curiosity can be called a curse and a blessing.Rudy van Belkom
In the literature on curiosity, a distinction is made between curiosity accompanied by a feeling of joy and curiosity accompanied by a feeling of discomfort or even stress. How does this work for you?
When I find something important, it takes priority over my own happiness. Idealism and curiosity are closely related to me. Curiosity can also be called a curse and a blessing. Yet I would never want to trade in my curiosity. I see that life would be easier if you accept things quickly and put nice things first. Is this selfishness, naive or normal? Being curious is not always easy and also brings discomfort.
Will AI promote or limit curiosity in decision making? In what way?
Yes, that is the big question! I don’t think anything is that simple: it’s not just about more or less. We relinquish certain forms of curiosity. New forms of curiosity take their place. Just like jobs will change instead of getting lost. It will not be the same as during the Industrial Revolution. Compare it to the mobile phone. People used to say that the mobile phone would make you stupid because people would know fewer numbers by heart. Indeed, we don’t have to remember all these numbers anymore. So now there is more room in your head for other things.
AI will create more time. The question is, what are people going to do with that time? We have more time to do things that we really feel like doing. But more time can also make you lazy.
In an interview for Stichting Toekomstbeeld der Techniek, you said: Let’s design the future together. We can design our own future, how do we make people believe in their own influence?
This is one of the objectives of Stichting Toekomstbeeld der Techniek. I contribute to this through the work I do. I believe in the manufacturability of things. Of course, things happen to you, but you decide for yourself how you deal with them. I always said: when we don’t want AI, it doesn’t happen. But it’s more complex. China and the US are investing in AI. It’s a train that will arrive anyway. Everyone has to decide. Do I get on the train? And which car do I get in? Stopping the whole train is going to be tricky.
We can contribute to awareness by sketching different scenarios and letting people think along with us. We can learn to think about scenarios and AI in primary education, for example.
You want to leave the world better than you found it. What do you think are the most important social challenges? How do you use your curiosity or fascination for this?
For me, there are two main challenges: 1) the polarization and the tensions it creates. I see the Blackface discussion as a kind of gauge. The polarization is greater than people think. Chances are that society will implode while people are afraid of outside threats. The New Voting tries to banish left and right thinking. You’re not just for or against. It’s about more nuanced answers. The New Voting is aimed at introducing nuance into the political debate.
And 2) AI and autonomous technology. We relinquish some of the control and accountability. We have to accept that technology can do something without understanding or explaining it. We can’t look under the hood of AI. Even AI experts, who are building AI, indicate that they no longer understand what is happening under AI’s hood. Describing the scenarios of AI helps people become more aware of the possibilities and consequences of AI.
The aim of The New Voting is to make more nuanced and informed choices. Nuances that now seem to be even more valuable in the political debate. Do you also need some more nuance? Then take a look at the video below and at the website of Het Nieuwe Kiezen. Perhaps valuable as a preparation for any next round of elections.
How has curiosity changed your life?
Has curiosity also caused life-changing events for you? I’d like to hear from you. React in the comments below or mail me: [email protected]