How is Amsterdam revolutionising AI & healthcare?

The Amsterdam region has become a global leader in applying artificial intelligence to improving health and healthcare. This has not come about by accident. Instead, it is a result of a concerted effort in community building. Through Smart Health Amsterdam, the Amsterdam Economic Board has overseen the development of a network for collaboration and cross-fertilisation, spanning academic, private and governmental organisations.

Time to share

Whether it was founding the world’s first stock exchange back in the 17th century or sending the first transatlantic email, the Amsterdam region has always thrived on pushing through innovations with global impact. In many ways, it was inevitable that the area would also become a leader in using data science and AI to make real-world improvements to health and healthcare.

The region has worked hard on building up its life sciences and AI expertise and resources through a strong academic community, impressive business tradition and committed policymakers. Amsterdam’s credentials in this field were already strong enough for the city to attract the regulatory European Medicines Agency when it had to relocate from London due to Brexit.

But 2018 marked the moment when the efforts to support life sciences in the Amsterdam Area really went into overdrive. The Amsterdam Economic Board, along with the City of Amsterdam and with 11 partners, initiated Smart Health Amsterdam to act as the ultimate network for data- and AI-driven innovation in Amsterdam’s life sciences and health sector.

Then, in 2019, the equally ambitious ‘AI Technology for the People’ initiative was born. This collaboration between seven local academic and research institutes, plus the City of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Economic Board, announced they would invest one billion euros in the development of responsible AI technologies over the following 10 years. With a shared vision and increased awareness of the power of collaboration, innovation accelerated further. The recent decision to share ICU data of patients in hospitals across the Netherlands is just one example of the Dutch sector’s advancing efforts and expertise in medical data science.

As the global life sciences and health industry continues to pay attention to these developments, now is a good time to summarise some of the key reasons why the Amsterdam region is growing to be a true leader when it comes to using AI and data science to improve patient outcomes and help extend people’s years of health.

Shaping the triple helix: the power of public-private partnerships (PPPs)

Things get exciting – and they get done! – when the triple helix model of innovation is deployed in a way that means each part can play on their strengths. Imagine it to go like this: a) Academic research dreams up some ground-breaking tech, b) the pragmatic business world manages expectations to bring applications to market, and c) the government provides the framework to make everyone’s jobs easier – whether by cutting red tape or helping to develop hubs such as the Amsterdam Science Park. In addition, with academia and the commercial sector often working within conflicting timelines and talking whole different languages, governments and allied organisations such as the Amsterdam Economic Board can also play important roles as connectors and translators.

Amsterdam has now embraced this holy trinity. Via such organisations as the Innovation Centre for Artificial Intelligence (ICAI) and the VU Campus Centre Artificial Intelligence & Health, a whole array of PPPs have come together to work on projects seeking real-world impact.

In it together: an integrated academic community

Over the past 20 years, Amsterdam’s main universities have built up a wealth of specialised knowledge about data science – and how best to share it with each other. While the University of Amsterdam (UvA) has built up great expertise in data driven machine learning, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU Amsterdam) specialises in knowledge-based learning. They both seek to improve the interactions between humans and machines. On a medical level, the two universities’ training hospitals recently fused into the single Amsterdam UMC, which is located near other world-class research facilities such as the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI).

Local high-end research organisation  CWI and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS) come-up with practical AI solutions to current problems and develop programmes that offer AI literacy to students, staff and the public at large. The focus of CWI is on fundamental research problems derived from societal needs. CWI actively works on innovative AI solutions, often in a multi-disciplinary collaborative setting.

Getting down to business: from experience comes inclusiveness

The pragmatic Dutch have long known how to cut a deal – aware that the happier everyone is, the better it is for business. There’s always been plenty of interaction and exchange between younger companies and larger global players. The Amsterdam Economic Board continues this tradition by playing matchmaker between different parties. Meanwhile, many younger companies, such as Pacmed and Aidence, are coming of age and scaling rapidly to become global players themselves.

The vision thing: it’s about people, not machines

On a practical level, the ‘AI: Technology for People’ initiative is a major financial boost to the sector. But the underlying vision – for the people – may have more of a long-term impact. It puts the focus on the fact that algorithms are only brilliant when they are unbiased and make the lives of those working in the field easier. That people must retain control over their own data. That patients come first.

In addition, local research programmes have traditionally emphasised hybrid intelligence over artificial intelligence. This is the idea that AI should act as a complementary colleague that augments human intellect, not as a black box that delivers results but can’t be fully understood. Currently, the cross-disciplinary Gravitation project is out to answer a range of related questions. How can we improve collaboration? How can computers be more social? How can machines better understand us – and learn our weird human ways?

Proximities: both regional and rippling out

Within Amsterdam, there are specific hubs of healthtech activity such as Amsterdam Science Park and the areas around UMC Amsterdam. But, as we circle out, other innovative LSH clusters are nearby, in Utrecht, Leiden and Eindhoven. And the interaction between these ecosystems is only increasing.

Meanwhile, Schiphol Airport and a strong IT infrastructure connect us with Europe and the rest of the world. Of course, the EU is paramount. As a bloc, we are unified in a people-owned vision of AI and data use – to counterbalance the state-owned-data tendencies of China and the corporate-owned-data ways of the US. Through the European Lab for Learning and Intelligent Systems (ELLIS) and the Confederation of Laboratories for Artificial Intelligence Research in Europe (CLAIRE), Amsterdam is intensifying its collaboration with the rest of Europe.

Attractive to talent: data as sexy as Amsterdam

Amsterdam not only produces quality AI and data science talent, but also attracts it. This is in part thanks to the region’s high quality of life. Plus, data science has become almost as sexy as the city and the industry is evolving quickly. Meanwhile, more local companies dedicated to, for example, curing cancer are increasingly able to offer salaries that compete with the global tech companies who are more dedicated to, say, improving clickthrough rates. And once you’ve attracted talent, you attract more talent.

Responsible, clean and accessible: achieving a single health data infrastructure

Providing medical research with clean and reliable data that respects personal privacy has been a major technical hurdling block – and continues to be a challenge. The exchange of health data will need to involve a more stringent and complex system, and there’s still a lot of work to be done. But when the Netherlands’ rich data streams – such as 15 years’ worth of longitudinal medical data on millions of citizens – can be anonymised and made available for research, the payback will be vast. And the Amsterdam Economic Board does not only want health data to be private and well-protected, but also other personal data as well – such as what transportation you may use or your financial details. Various parties, including the Amsterdam Economic Board, are currently working together to develop the Amsterdam Data Exchange (AMdEX), which will be a more generalised cross-sector digital marketplace for citizen-owned data.

Battling bias: creating equality algorithms

Any future health data exchange system will need to be both highly privacy-oriented and ethical. It’s a much-discussed subject: how the inequality and discrimination apparent in our societies shows up in our algorithms. Amsterdam’s own Civic AI Lab is currently applying AI in studying the different factors behind inequality and being able to predict possible outcomes. In turn, it’s hoped policies can be developed to provide the best opportunities for all people. After all, only a truly fair society can deliver truly fair algorithms.

Show the money

Finally, continued and increased funding needs to be ensured. Yes, the investment in AI of one billion euros over ten years helps enormously. But more investment means even more ROI – for both our health and our healthcare.

Smart Health Amsterdam is the network for data- and AI-driven innovation in Amsterdam’s life sciences and health sector. Join our community.

11 March 2021

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