Nine multidisciplinary research projects on digitisation have started

18 December 2019

The use of algorithms by public organisations, the use of conflict frames by politicians and social media, the platformisation of the sex industry and the support of personal autonomy by artificial intelligence are among the subjects investigated in the projects resulting from the Open Competition for Digitalisation. To investigate such complex subjects that are the result of the digital society, the Dutch Research Council (NWO) is funding nine multidisciplinary research projects from this programme.

Within the projects, social scientists and humanities researchers from various disciplines are working together because the complex and urgent societal issues concerning digitalisation require insights from several approaches and perspectives. The intended results include improved news algorithms, chatbots and blueprints for communication and social robots.

A total of 87 teams of social sciences and humanities researchers submitted a pre-proposal and 23 of these could be elaborated into a full proposal. Nine of these proposals have now been awarded funding. The projects have a size of between 275,000 and 750,000 euros. The projects have a maximum duration of five years.

Domain Plan SSH

The Open Competition for Digitalisation has emerged from the Domain Plan SSH. The Domain Plan SSH explicitly stated the intention to encourage structural domain-wide collaboration in the area of societal and scientific issues concerning digitalisation and the digital transition, such as big data, artificial intelligence and social media as well as the scientific practice concerning these. Therefore the call for proposals included a condition that applications could only be submitted by at least two researchers from at least two different faculties, with at least one researcher having a PhD in the humanities and at least one researcher a PhD in social sciences.

Considerable diversity

‘The projects awarded funding exhibit considerable diversity’, says Claes de Vreese in a response. The Professor of Artificial Intelligence, Data & Democracy at the University of Amsterdam is chair of the SSH Council of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and was involved in putting together the Domain Plan SSH. ‘And that is exactly what we intended in the domain plan: the significances and consequences of digitalisation for law, the humanities and social sciences. The awards also include projects that investigate the consequences of digitalisation for health and well-being. That is great because this theme is not just important for the social sciences.’

If public challenges, such as digitalisation were only to be studied in a single discipline or for a single subarea, then that would often yield an unsatisfying answer, says De Vreese. ‘And then that is often also just a partial answer. This also concerns the ethical, legal and normative regulation of this issue.’

‘Further, I am pleased that scholars from various disciplines are seeking contact with each other. They apparently do not mind having this collaboration enforced on them.’ And that collaboration is extensive, as you can see from the research projects awarded funding, De Vreese notes. ‘Not only the interdisciplinary strengthening requires a lot from the researchers. You also need to do extra research and take an extra step. You must be willing to learn about each other’s disciplines and sometimes you literally need to learn about each other’s instruments.’

Interdisciplinary research projects are vitally important for the coming years, says De Vreese. ‘This can be a stimulus to enter into even broader cooperations in the coming years with respect to themes from law, technological development and health and well-being, for example. As the government and financing party, you need to create good boundary conditions for this. I am optimistic that the next Dutch cabinet will also see the importance of such research and make funding available for this. And that this will therefore be a foretaste of what we may expect in the future.’

Projects awarded funding

Value-Sensitive and Transparent Algoritmization: Key to Building Citizen Trust?
Prof. Dr A.J. Meijer (UU), Prof. Dr J.F.T.M. van Dijck  (UU), Dr S.G. Grimmelikhuijsen (UU), Dr M.T. Schäfer (UU) and Prof. Dr F.J. Bex (UU, UvT)

Public organizations increasingly use algorithms for work processes. However, this usage has resulted in concerns regarding undesirable outcomes such as a bias or lack of fairness, in contact with citizens. This project investigates how; (1) value-sensitivity and (2) transparency can strengthen citizen trust in the use of these algorithms.

The impact of online battles: Use and implications of political conflicts in a digital media environment
Dr S. Kruikemeier (UvA), Prof. Dr R. Vliegenthart (UvA) and Prof. Dr Ir G.J. de Ridder (VU)

Politicians increasingly use conflict framing on social media. Using distinctions from philosophical literature about disagreement, this project investigates whether and, if so, how the nature of the conflict frame affects voters; whether it mobilizes and informs voters, or whether it leads to cynicism and disengagement.

Communica-ng with and Rela-ng to Social Robots: Alice Meets Leolani
Prof. Dr P.T.J.M. Vossen (VU), Prof. Dr E.A. Konijn (VU) and Prof. Dr J.F. Hoorn (VU)

To optimize human-robot communication, the pragmatic-semantic aspects of understanding natural language are connected to the mechanisms of social-affective bonding with robots. Put simply, what
is needed from a robot conversationally for people to become friends with an artificial other? This results in blueprints for effective and personalized robot communication scenarios.

Rethinking news algorithms: nudging users towards diverse news exposure
Dr W.H. van Atteveldt (VU), Dr A.S. Fokkens (VU) and Prof. Dr N. Helberger (UvA)

We improve news algorithms to stimulate people to read more diverse news. Algorithms such as used by Facebook and Google can unwittingly trap people in a “filter bubble”. Nudging people to read about more topics and perspectives makes them more aware of issues facing the country.

Look Who’s Talking: Towards Engaging Long-Term Interactions with Conversational Agents
Prof. Dr E.J. Krahmer (UvT), Dr G.-J. de Bruijn (UvA), Prof. Dr T. Bosse (RU), Prof. Dr M.L. Antheunis (UT), Dr W.F.G. Haselager (RU) and Prof. Dr R.W. Wiers (UvA)
Trying to change a person’s health behaviour (stop smoking, have safe sex) is difficult. Digital conversational agents (chatbots) have huge potential for this. Based on recent insights from (computational) social sciences and humanities, we develop and test a new generation of chatbots which can engage in long-term motivational interactions.

The platformization of the global sex industry: Markets, morals, and mass intimacy
Prof. Dr O.J.M. Velthuis (UvA) and Dr T. Poell (UvA)

This project studies the spectacular rise of webcam sex platforms, such as Chaturbate, Cams.com or Myfreecams. What is the impact of platformization on competition within this industry? Which risks and opportunities does webcamming create for sex workers? Are there reasons for better regulation of these platforms?

“Empowering Human Intentions through Artificial Intelligence”
Prof. Dr Ir J.M. Broersen (UU) and Prof. Dr H. Aarts (UU)

Everyone is familiar with the tension between habits (smoking, gaming, etc.) and intentions to change one’s behaviour. Our research analyses the relation between intentions and habits. It uses the results on which habits strengthen or undermine the realization of certain intentions to development a form of AI that strengthens one’s personal autonomy.

RAIDIO - Responsible Artificial Intelligence in clinical DecisIOn-making
Prof. Dr A.L. Bredenoord (UMCU) and Prof. Dr S.M.E. Wyatt (UM)

AI changes medical practice. AI augmented decision-making processes are being implemented, yet ethical guidance for the responsible development and use of AI in medicine is still lacking. This research analyses the digital transition in image-based medicine and ethically evaluates the role of AI in clinical decision-making.

The Bias Barometer
Dr K. Schulz (UvA) and Dr L. van Maanen (UvA)

The team studies the relationship between stereotypes (“Scientists are dull”) in media and the development of implicit biases by media consumers. As a case study we will analyse coverage of the US presidential elections in 2020 on various media (e.g., CNN, Fox), and how these cause different implicit biases.

Source: NWO