Making data meaningful

Anna Fensel

Human and machine are the most powerful combination

WUR is serious about data and data science. That’s why the university is welcoming multiple data scientists. What is data science, and what does artificial intelligence (AI) have to do with it? How does this relate to you as a student or researcher? Anna Fensel, newly appointed associate professor in AI and data science, explains.

All future jobs will be connected with data science and AI, according to Anna Fensel. She thinks it’s a very promising field to be in – take innovators like Larry Page, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, for example. Chances are that at least one of them has impacted your life, and all of them are data scientists working with AI. Data science is hot and, with the new AI and data science professors team and proposed master’s degrees in applied AI and data science, very much happening at WUR.

Anna is part of that team. With an impressive and international career that took her from her home country of Russia to Austria, Ireland and the UK, she now brings her expertise in semantic technology and FAIR data to WUR as an associate professor. She’s drawn by the innovative character of computer science and loves creating new things that can have a visible and significant influence on human life, and hopes her upcoming classes will inspire students to do that, too.

Anna feels that WUR is the gateway to sustainable change. “There’s so much data connected to food and agriculture, and nobody understands the data as well as the researchers at WUR do. Bringing AI to WUR allows us to combine the expertise from the fields of food and data science, and create meaningful impact,” she elaborates. Data science and AI help data to be processed more efficiently and to be used across applications; this can even generate new applications.

Photo: Guy Ackermans

WUR has appointed

2 new full-time professors

1 full-time associate professor

6 part-time experts

1 research coordinator

all in data science

The new AI programme is

part of the Data Driven and High Tech research

theme within the strategic plan

“AI brings additional knowledge to systems,” Anna explains. “As humans, we know very little and we can only store limited amounts of information in our heads. AI, on the other hand, has the capacity to store and process huge amounts. Humans are inherently better at knowledge management and decision-making than AI though.” Since neither are flawless and both can produce errors, Anna believes in the powerful combination of human and machine: “Putting them together can help us make better decisions. It’s the most intelligent combination.”

Research is impacted on more practical levels too. “AI can replace some working processes and make research more efficient, not to mention that it has reduced the need to fly all over the planet and has allowed for more advanced interpretations of data. Now data can be collected once in one location and can be efficiently shared globally with all interested research groups. Additionally, the data can be interlinked and combined, so that the development of interdisciplinary research and applications can take place as well.”

Changing people’s lives

So is AI the future? “I think it’s the present already,” says Anna. “Look at the Covid pandemic – data science and AI have enabled us to continue our lives the way we have, without us realising how much data is involved.” It shows how data science has changed our lives over the past few decades, and Anna believes it will continue to do so on all levels of society.

The term

artificial intelligence

was coined as early as 1956

65 years later,

AI is an integral part of our lives;

think of smart assistants like Alexa or Siri, music recommendations on your favourite streaming service, or self-parking cars

“AI will both replace and support people, but also generate new jobs.” Anna believes the world will become a cooperation of human and machine. “Hopefully AI can decrease our workload, so that humans have more time to do more fun stuff. And who knows: maybe AI can stop the retirement age from going up,” she adds.

As a student, you can contribute to such progress, too. Anna elaborates: “Publish your research data, your theses and your papers, so that data sets become reusable and can be referenced. Publishing your work also allows others to rerun experiments and take them to the next level. That’s how you can make research more efficient and help it move forward; that’s how you can make people’s lives easier, fuller and more efficient.”

And although there are plenty of challenges and concerns in terms of security and privacy – how should universities, companies and researchers manage their data, who can access it and under what terms and conditions? – that shouldn’t keep you from sharing data. “Transparency is key,” says Anna, who vouches for FAIR data. FAIR data advances AI, as having the data in a FAIR form allows its efficient use and re-use for research purposes and in applications.

Publish your research data, theses, and papers; that’s how you can make people’s lives easier, better and more efficient

FAIR data adheres to 4 principles:

Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability and Reusability

FAIR data implementation involves the application

of semantic web technology

In fact, FAIR data is part of Anna’s expertise and one of her focus points at WUR. Her field of research is computer science, AI and data science, and in particular the semantic web and FAIR data, meaning she specialises in data sharing infrastructures to help people get data out and share it properly. In addition to conducting research, she’ll be teaching as well and although her upcoming course is still taking shape, it’s likely to be about the semantic web, FAIR data, and AI techniques and applications in various WUR domains. She concludes: “developing, applying, and teaching AI and data science for a sustainable future is a dream job.”