Six questions for... Bedir Tekinerdogan

‘Computers are smart, but they can’t compete yet with humans for general intelligence’

Photo: Anne Reinke

Bedir Tekinerdogan is professor of Information Technology and head of the Information Technology group. He knows better than anyone how powerful data can be and how important it is to properly manage all the data we are collecting in ever-increasing volumes.

When Bedir Tekinerdogan started at university in 1988, he didn't own a computer yet. “I was just an ordinary lad from Ulft. For financial reasons, I could only buy my first computer one year later and it had a hard drive of 20 MB. I remember us students telling one another that we would never be able to fill it up.” Nearly 33 years later, we are discussing terabytes and petabytes, and the USB stick of yesteryear has been replaced by the much more secure option of OneDrive or cloud. Data science has become a university subject and Tekinerdogan is a professor at WUR and head of the Information Technology group. He has written five books and more than 350 peer-reviewed articles. Even so, there is a hint of nostalgia in his voice when he talks about the oldest piece of computer data that he still owns. “My Master’s thesis from 1994 was about a payment system for banks. I think I should still be able to open it. It was written in Smalltalk, an old programming language.”

What is the significance of data for a university like WUR?

“Our core business is life sciences: nutrition, health, sustainability, the climate and nature. You could ask what that has got to do with data. Well, an awful lot. What we essentially do was nicely summarized in the 2016 Foundation Day theme of The Digitalisation of Nature. Digital technology, infrastructures and Big Data offer new opportunities in exploring the potential of nature and in the design of new practices and technologies for an improved quality of life. While we might not be a technical university like Delft or Eindhoven, digitalisation is still crucial for our scientific practice. I once spoke to a director of John Deere, which used to be a well-known farm machinery manufacturer. He said, ‘These days we are effectively more of an IT company.’ That is the case everywhere in agriculture.”

At present, data is stored in too many different ways in a variety of IT systems and databases

Data has been important in agriculture for centuries, explains Tekinerdogan. “For all areas of science, really. The biggest difference now compared with the past is that we store the data digitally. That lets us practise science faster, more accurately and more consistently. Take animal welfare. Research on detecting disease in cows can be done faster if you put sensors in the barn and analyse the data they generate. The same applies to precision agriculture, where data lets you make optimum use of each little section of the field. Data is all-important, but at WUR you always need to connect the data to your research question.”

What is the most important contribution of data to education?

“More data means better decision-making. That applies to research, and to education as well. Data has long been recorded within education, mainly data on students, their results and other education-related processes. Decisions are taken based on that data. The current trend in which more and more data can be generated and calculated allows decision-making in education to be based on firmer foundations.”

What are the potential pitfalls for data management involving students?

“Data management concerns all the steps that need to be taken to obtain, store, analyse and maintain data, and make it available and keep it secure. Proper data management is particularly important nowadays with the huge increase in the volume of data. At present, data is stored in too many different ways in a variety of IT systems and databases. Communication also mainly takes place through these digital channels. On the one hand, that is a good thing as it makes things faster. On the other hand, you see a tendency to take an informal approach to managing data. The lack of an explicit data management plan can lead to unexpected and undesirable results. Take the example of data loss or external cyber-attacks.”

Name

Bedir Tekinerdogan

Degree

IT, software engineering

Marital status

Married

Children

One daughter aged 19 and one son aged 23

Hobbies

Reading, photography, music, travel

What do you see as the most important developments in data science, data management and data security?

“Since the GDPR was introduced in 2018, the same privacy laws have applied across the European Union. That is a massive improvement. In its wake, people have become more aware of data use and security, and so has the technology. The detection of phishing or malware (malicious programs used by hackers, ed.) has become better and better, for instance.”

How Serious are you personally About Data?

“Very serious. Of course, I regularly make backups in my personal environment and I work in a secure environment. In my research groups, I always make sure we have an explicit data management plan. I’m not quite so rigid in my personal environment. I have deleted my Facebook account though, because of the privacy issues. However, I do use WhatsApp, mainly for family and friends. But I make sure I don’t send work documents via WhatsApp, nor do I download any apps onto my smartphone that I don’t need.”

Photo: Anne Reinke

Which book or film about data made a deep impression on you?

“I have personally been inspired by the books of Isaac Asimov, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Of course, they are mainly about the impact of technology on society. To what extent does technology function in the service of democracy? These are important questions if you work on data studies. Do you want an authoritarian society or a democratic one? We live in a democracy here in the Netherlands, so the systems must ensure privacy. Politicians have an important task in that regard, but unfortunately they are currently failing to keep up. All modern companies do technology forecasting, but politicians don’t.” “If I look at the future, I do believe computers can become smarter than people in specific areas. This is termed Narrow Artificial Intelligence. But I’m sceptical when it comes to general intelligence and I’m convinced that humans — amazing creatures that we are — will not easily be surpassed.”

To what extent does technology function in the service of democracy? This is an important question if you work on data studies