Interview Cynthia Liem, Chair ICTng (4TU.NIRICT)

4TU Delft
4TU Eindhoven
4TU Twente
4TU Wageningen
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"The new generation of ICT specialists is more diverse in all aspects. They’re more international, some are returning to university from industry, and they’re also trying to make their mark outside traditional academic paths."
Cynthia Liem

To gain an impression of what ICT academics consider important in their careers and open up the debate about this, ICTng (4TU.NIRICT) has developed a questionnaire that has been sent out to all universities.

The 4TU.Federation interviewed Cynthia Liem (TU Delft) about the questionnaire and other topics that are relevant for the future of ICT. Go directly to the questionnaire

What does ICT Next Generation (ICTng) do and who is it aimed at?
ICTng was an initiative founded in 2015 within 4TU.NIRICT, the joint ICT research institute of the four universities of technology. Its main task involves creating a network of junior ICT academics. As a young academic, how do you ensure that you’re talking to the right people? How do you stay in touch with important upcoming calls and national research programmes and what’s going on in business? ICTng aims to offer this network to anyone associated with ICT – from communication technology and electrical engineering through to computer science.

Since our field is having an increasing impact on society, especially in such areas as cybersecurity, big data and AI, and collaborates with several other disciplines, you’re dealing with an ever-growing number of relevant players, networks and interest groups. It’s not easy to find your way and you’re more likely to be approached if you’re in a senior rather than a junior position. But being acquainted with these networks matters a lot when you’re in a junior position.

What plans do you have as chair?
I think it’s really important that the young generation of ICT academics get a better hearing. Our field is developing incredibly fast and we sometimes have a totally different perspective on it than the established generation. Just consider all the hands-on experience young academics gain in the field. We want to bring this kind of new knowledge into plans about the future, for example when new calls are being set up by players such as NWO.

"Many of our research themes touch on subjects that are dominating the public debate, such as AI, security and privacy. There are still too few real technological experts in this debate."
Cynthia Liem

We’re already making good progress. One of my accomplishments is that I’ve been able to gain representation for ICTng as an extraordinary member of IPN, the Netherlands’ ICT Research Platform, ensuring that we’re actively kept informed of nationwide ICT developments and also involved when it’s relevant to us. For example, IPN is currently developing a vision for 2030. Should ICT specialists serve or take the lead? Of course, it’s important for ICT to serve society, but the scientific core should not be forgotten. People from our network have been actively invited to contribute to debates like this.

We should also make our voice heard more externally. Many of our research themes touch on subjects that are beginning to dominate the public debate, such as AI, security and privacy. These discussions need experts, but there are still too few real technological experts in the public debate. ICTng has such experts in its network, and that’s something that we should call attention to more.

The profiling of ICT specialists seems to link in nicely with your questionnaire.
That’s right. To give us a better impression of what matters to ICT specialists in their academic careers, we decided to launch an anonymous questionnaire. This looks at the extent to which academic staff feel supported in their activities, potential differences between activities that you need to invest time in to pursue your career, and what you’d prefer to spend time on if you had a free choice. Do you only get pleasure from your research, or do you also enjoy teaching and do you want to make a difference to society, or focus more on application? We plan to publish the questionnaire results and discuss them in the form of a debate. Seventy people have already completed the questionnaire.

Because our participants come from all Dutch universities, including the general universities, we hope to find out more about any universal problems, challenges and desires there might be, across the whole sector. If it turns out that we face the same challenges, it will also make sense to share examples of best practice across the different institutes. 
This subject links in nicely with the VSNU’s recent position paper on acknowledging a range of talent in academia (‘Ruimte voor ieders talent; naar een nieuwe balans in het erkennen en waarderen van wetenschappers’). The results of this questionnaire can hopefully shed some light on what improved recognition and appreciation could look like within ICT.

What other developments play a role in this?
The effect of the digital revolution is now really making its mark. We increasingly use the internet as our information source. During this time of coronavirus, it’s also almost the only way of communicating and doing our work. This makes ICT more relevant than ever and as the 4TU.Federation said in its Sector Plan for Science and Technology Education, submitted to the Ministry last spring, that also means that more ICT specialists need to be trained.

"Many of us have already faced the choice between industry and university and regularly reconsider this choice."

As we face an increasing demand for academic and teaching staff to train these ICT specialists, the university also needs to be able to recruit and retain people with expertise in this field. But when it comes to such subjects as applied AI, it’s much more difficult for a university to facilitate the data, infrastructure and specialised staff, while tech giants like Google have all of this in-house and can also offer much higher salaries. This means that high-impact research in areas like this tends to come from industry and some colleagues are starting to see this as a more attractive career option than the university. So how does a university still remain attractive? I think our generation can also offer some useful insights here, since many of us have already faced the choice between industry and university and also regularly reconsider our choice.

What does the future hold for ICT specialists?
They will have to engage much more with society and collaborate with different disciplines. In turn, universities needs to focus more on the individual. The new generation of ICT specialists is more diverse in all respects. They’re more international, some are returning to university from industry, and they’re also trying to make their mark outside traditional academic paths.

When it comes to teaching, we need to realise that demand from society involves more than just ICT academics. As a university, we need to create more opportunities in this respect within the degree programme, and there are also ways of having a social impact outside academia. For example, by including ‘responsible engineering’ as an explicit theme in the programme and passing it on to our students as they enter the field of work.

What motivated you to become the chair of ICTng?
At a certain point in my career – I come from the world of search engines – I was on the verge of moving into industry. In the end, I didn’t do it, because I also loved the public side of my field and the combination with education appealed to me. Having made the decision to stay at the university, it occurred to me that I wanted to create a culture where I myself feel at home and where I’d be happy to stay for the long haul. My role as chair now allows me to actively work on these cultural improvements, which makes it really interesting for me.

"You should not blindly trust technology as a superhuman force, but remain critical and be able to reconsider your modelling."

What is your background?
I graduated in computer science in Delft before becoming a performing musician at the Conservatoire in The Hague. I did research into digital musical sources: how do you keep recordings accessible, how do you filter information in order to ensure that the right people can access key information – in other words: what do search engines and recommendation systems need?

My current research involves more fields than just music and I’m much more explicitly focused on the field of responsible use of AI, even though I’m still dealing with similar questions, such as what you put into a model and what you get out of it. AI technology is especially good at identifying significant patterns in data sources, but you need to constantly ask yourself whether a pattern is actually meaningful or just a accidental result. This means not blindly trusting technology as a superhuman force, but remaining critical and being able to reconsider your modelling. In the teaching I do alongside my research, I aim to share that mindset with my students. It’s very much needed. As our technology starts to have so much impact and we see and hear so many success stories, we also need to ensure that we apply technology with care, understand the potential consequences and don’t accidentally use it to do bad things!

ICT Next Generation (ICTng) is a group of talented younger-generation ICT researchers in the Netherlands. Initiated by 4TU.NIRICT and COMMIT, its participants come from all of the Netherlands’ universities, making it a highly diverse group that encompasses a very diverse and nationally representative group of all Dutch universities. You can find further information on their website. The anonymous questionnaire ‘Perceptions of academic leadership’ is open until the end of October 2020.  

The 4TU.NIRICT research centre (Netherlands Institute for Research on ICT) concentrates on bringing together, positioning and prioritising all aspects of ICT research within the four universities of technology.
One of its key objectives is to bring the 4TU ICT community closer together, strengthen collaboration between ICT researchers within the 4TU and build bridges to national ICT organisations. NIRICT holds an annual community day which, since 2018, has focused on the call for community funding. This call has led to many workshops, tutorials, presentations and training courses being organised. NIRICT also aims to connect electrical engineering and computer science and facilitate researchers at the start of their careers.

Dr Cynthia Liem is assistant professor in the Multimedia Computing Group, Department of Intelligent Systems, at Delft University of Technology. After completing an MSc in Media and Knowledge Engineering at TU Delft (2009) she did a doctoral programme (PhD 2015) on digital music accessibility, co-financed by a Google European Doctoral Fellowship. She also studied classical piano at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague (Master of Music 2011). She gained her industrial experience at Bell Labs Netherlands, Philips Research and Google. In 2018, she was a Researcher-in-Residence at the National Library of the Netherlands in The Hague.

As an academic, she has initiated and coordinated various Dutch and international research projects in the field of information accessibility and non-trivial information filtering, both in the cultural sector and in interdisciplinary collaboration with social scientists and, more recently, also in the ICAI AI for Fintech lab. She has a particular interest in developing AI technology that is both reliable and trustworthy.

She also remains active as a musician, and in her role as pianist in the internationally acclaimed Magma Duo (met Emmy Storms, violin), she attempts to find ways of presenting under-explored music and genre connections to a wider public.

Interview Cynthia Liem, Chair ICTng (4TU.NIRICT)

"The new generation of ICT specialists is more diverse in all aspects. They’re more international, some are returning to university from industry, and they’re also trying to make their mark outside traditional academic paths."
Cynthia Liem

To gain an impression of what ICT academics consider important in their careers and open up the debate about this, ICTng (4TU.NIRICT) has developed a questionnaire that has been sent out to all universities.

The 4TU.Federation interviewed Cynthia Liem (TU Delft) about the questionnaire and other topics that are relevant for the future of ICT. Go directly to the questionnaire

What does ICT Next Generation (ICTng) do and who is it aimed at?
ICTng was an initiative founded in 2015 within 4TU.NIRICT, the joint ICT research institute of the four universities of technology. Its main task involves creating a network of junior ICT academics. As a young academic, how do you ensure that you’re talking to the right people? How do you stay in touch with important upcoming calls and national research programmes and what’s going on in business? ICTng aims to offer this network to anyone associated with ICT – from communication technology and electrical engineering through to computer science.

Since our field is having an increasing impact on society, especially in such areas as cybersecurity, big data and AI, and collaborates with several other disciplines, you’re dealing with an ever-growing number of relevant players, networks and interest groups. It’s not easy to find your way and you’re more likely to be approached if you’re in a senior rather than a junior position. But being acquainted with these networks matters a lot when you’re in a junior position.

What plans do you have as chair?
I think it’s really important that the young generation of ICT academics get a better hearing. Our field is developing incredibly fast and we sometimes have a totally different perspective on it than the established generation. Just consider all the hands-on experience young academics gain in the field. We want to bring this kind of new knowledge into plans about the future, for example when new calls are being set up by players such as NWO.

"Many of our research themes touch on subjects that are dominating the public debate, such as AI, security and privacy. There are still too few real technological experts in this debate."
Cynthia Liem

We’re already making good progress. One of my accomplishments is that I’ve been able to gain representation for ICTng as an extraordinary member of IPN, the Netherlands’ ICT Research Platform, ensuring that we’re actively kept informed of nationwide ICT developments and also involved when it’s relevant to us. For example, IPN is currently developing a vision for 2030. Should ICT specialists serve or take the lead? Of course, it’s important for ICT to serve society, but the scientific core should not be forgotten. People from our network have been actively invited to contribute to debates like this.

We should also make our voice heard more externally. Many of our research themes touch on subjects that are beginning to dominate the public debate, such as AI, security and privacy. These discussions need experts, but there are still too few real technological experts in the public debate. ICTng has such experts in its network, and that’s something that we should call attention to more.

The profiling of ICT specialists seems to link in nicely with your questionnaire.
That’s right. To give us a better impression of what matters to ICT specialists in their academic careers, we decided to launch an anonymous questionnaire. This looks at the extent to which academic staff feel supported in their activities, potential differences between activities that you need to invest time in to pursue your career, and what you’d prefer to spend time on if you had a free choice. Do you only get pleasure from your research, or do you also enjoy teaching and do you want to make a difference to society, or focus more on application? We plan to publish the questionnaire results and discuss them in the form of a debate. Seventy people have already completed the questionnaire.

Because our participants come from all Dutch universities, including the general universities, we hope to find out more about any universal problems, challenges and desires there might be, across the whole sector. If it turns out that we face the same challenges, it will also make sense to share examples of best practice across the different institutes. 
This subject links in nicely with the VSNU’s recent position paper on acknowledging a range of talent in academia (‘Ruimte voor ieders talent; naar een nieuwe balans in het erkennen en waarderen van wetenschappers’). The results of this questionnaire can hopefully shed some light on what improved recognition and appreciation could look like within ICT.

What other developments play a role in this?
The effect of the digital revolution is now really making its mark. We increasingly use the internet as our information source. During this time of coronavirus, it’s also almost the only way of communicating and doing our work. This makes ICT more relevant than ever and as the 4TU.Federation said in its Sector Plan for Science and Technology Education, submitted to the Ministry last spring, that also means that more ICT specialists need to be trained.

"Many of us have already faced the choice between industry and university and regularly reconsider this choice."

As we face an increasing demand for academic and teaching staff to train these ICT specialists, the university also needs to be able to recruit and retain people with expertise in this field. But when it comes to such subjects as applied AI, it’s much more difficult for a university to facilitate the data, infrastructure and specialised staff, while tech giants like Google have all of this in-house and can also offer much higher salaries. This means that high-impact research in areas like this tends to come from industry and some colleagues are starting to see this as a more attractive career option than the university. So how does a university still remain attractive? I think our generation can also offer some useful insights here, since many of us have already faced the choice between industry and university and also regularly reconsider our choice.

What does the future hold for ICT specialists?
They will have to engage much more with society and collaborate with different disciplines. In turn, universities needs to focus more on the individual. The new generation of ICT specialists is more diverse in all respects. They’re more international, some are returning to university from industry, and they’re also trying to make their mark outside traditional academic paths.

When it comes to teaching, we need to realise that demand from society involves more than just ICT academics. As a university, we need to create more opportunities in this respect within the degree programme, and there are also ways of having a social impact outside academia. For example, by including ‘responsible engineering’ as an explicit theme in the programme and passing it on to our students as they enter the field of work.

What motivated you to become the chair of ICTng?
At a certain point in my career – I come from the world of search engines – I was on the verge of moving into industry. In the end, I didn’t do it, because I also loved the public side of my field and the combination with education appealed to me. Having made the decision to stay at the university, it occurred to me that I wanted to create a culture where I myself feel at home and where I’d be happy to stay for the long haul. My role as chair now allows me to actively work on these cultural improvements, which makes it really interesting for me.

"You should not blindly trust technology as a superhuman force, but remain critical and be able to reconsider your modelling."

What is your background?
I graduated in computer science in Delft before becoming a performing musician at the Conservatoire in The Hague. I did research into digital musical sources: how do you keep recordings accessible, how do you filter information in order to ensure that the right people can access key information – in other words: what do search engines and recommendation systems need?

My current research involves more fields than just music and I’m much more explicitly focused on the field of responsible use of AI, even though I’m still dealing with similar questions, such as what you put into a model and what you get out of it. AI technology is especially good at identifying significant patterns in data sources, but you need to constantly ask yourself whether a pattern is actually meaningful or just a accidental result. This means not blindly trusting technology as a superhuman force, but remaining critical and being able to reconsider your modelling. In the teaching I do alongside my research, I aim to share that mindset with my students. It’s very much needed. As our technology starts to have so much impact and we see and hear so many success stories, we also need to ensure that we apply technology with care, understand the potential consequences and don’t accidentally use it to do bad things!

ICT Next Generation (ICTng) is a group of talented younger-generation ICT researchers in the Netherlands. Initiated by 4TU.NIRICT and COMMIT, its participants come from all of the Netherlands’ universities, making it a highly diverse group that encompasses a very diverse and nationally representative group of all Dutch universities. You can find further information on their website. The anonymous questionnaire ‘Perceptions of academic leadership’ is open until the end of October 2020.  

The 4TU.NIRICT research centre (Netherlands Institute for Research on ICT) concentrates on bringing together, positioning and prioritising all aspects of ICT research within the four universities of technology.
One of its key objectives is to bring the 4TU ICT community closer together, strengthen collaboration between ICT researchers within the 4TU and build bridges to national ICT organisations. NIRICT holds an annual community day which, since 2018, has focused on the call for community funding. This call has led to many workshops, tutorials, presentations and training courses being organised. NIRICT also aims to connect electrical engineering and computer science and facilitate researchers at the start of their careers.

Dr Cynthia Liem is assistant professor in the Multimedia Computing Group, Department of Intelligent Systems, at Delft University of Technology. After completing an MSc in Media and Knowledge Engineering at TU Delft (2009) she did a doctoral programme (PhD 2015) on digital music accessibility, co-financed by a Google European Doctoral Fellowship. She also studied classical piano at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague (Master of Music 2011). She gained her industrial experience at Bell Labs Netherlands, Philips Research and Google. In 2018, she was a Researcher-in-Residence at the National Library of the Netherlands in The Hague.

As an academic, she has initiated and coordinated various Dutch and international research projects in the field of information accessibility and non-trivial information filtering, both in the cultural sector and in interdisciplinary collaboration with social scientists and, more recently, also in the ICAI AI for Fintech lab. She has a particular interest in developing AI technology that is both reliable and trustworthy.

She also remains active as a musician, and in her role as pianist in the internationally acclaimed Magma Duo (met Emmy Storms, violin), she attempts to find ways of presenting under-explored music and genre connections to a wider public.