Portrait Catholijn Jonker

To me it’s always about we

A Spinoza Prize to be awarded to a computer scientist once every couple of years. That would be the dream scenario for Catholijn Jonker, chair of the ICT Research Platform Netherlands and Professor of Interactive Intelligence in Delft and Leiden. A portrait of a dedicated scientist and academic board member, for whom connection is the key word.

How did you end up in computer science?

‘In high school I excelled in mathematics. Since I was under the false impression that anyone who studied mathematics would automatically become a high school teacher, which wasn’t my dream job, I starting looking around for alternatives. Eventually, I signed up for the then relatively new study of computer science at Utrecht University, which was heavily based on mathematics. I have been hooked on the field ever since.’

What types of topics have you been working on over the years?

‘During my studies I got intrigued by the field of artificial intelligence, which at that time was mostly focused on knowledge representation and automatic reasoning. Early on I looked into topics like common sense reasoning. What is that exactly, and how can we translate it into something a computer can handle?
Since I have always been driven by the urge to develop technology that supports people, I ended up thinking about systems that assist people who do not have a domain expert around. For example, I did a project on industrial yarn spinning. At the time there were only a handful of people who could pinpoint the root cause of problems that occur during production. We developed an expert system accompanied by an explanatory system to help operators solve problems without having to call in a human expert.
That type of challenges still exist. What’s changed is the fact that now we can offer the core of an explanation to a Large Language Model, and ask the LLM to generate a nicely formulated explanation that fits with the person it is meant for. In the old days, we had to type out every possible explanation manually.’

What have you been working on more recently?

‘At a certain point in time I discovered that I was bad at negotiating. And I knew I am far from the only person struggling with this. So I decided that we could do with a system to help us develop a strategy for negotiations. This resulted in the Pocket Negotiator, a system that advises what to bid and when to accept an offer.  The great thing about this system is that it leads to negotiation results that are in fact better for both parties, not only for the person who is using the system.
The pocket negotiator perfectly illustrates my vision on artificial intelligence: it is not meant to replace people, but to complement human intelligence and to support them.’

Have you never considered taking up a job in industry and developing actual products?

‘No, I like to dive in deep into the fundamentals of a problem, not to search for the pragmatic workaround. But in my research I do like to interact with industry. Companies can provide me with serious cases, where I cannot cut corners to come up with some beautiful theoretical yet unworkable solution. Even though I am not trained as an engineer, in essence that is what I am: I want to see my solutions work. So, I typically also take care of the implementation of my research by developing prototypes and such.’

Besides your research, you have been involved in academic boards of all sorts. What is your motivation to engage in such activities?

‘The academic world is one we create together. I do not like us-versus-them sentiments, to me it is always about “we”. If others think that I can make a positive contribution to some organisation with my ideas or my connecting style of leadership, then I am more than happy to play my part. Of course, I cannot man the barricades for everything, but if a topic is close to my heart, I will certainly consider investing time in it.’

Since January 2020, you have been chairing IPN. What made you want to join this organisation?

‘That same conviction: that we shape our world together. My predecessors have done a marvellous job in uniting the field of computer science. I found it important to continue this development. The first three years have been rather successful, with the sector plans and the extra attention we’ve paid to the Special Interest Groups in which subdisciplines of the field are organising themselves.
The next challenge will be to instil the importance of community building into the next generation, and to broaden the base of people who can advocate for the Dutch computer science community as a whole. We are currently investing in development programmes for researchers at different levels to become these new ambassadors.’

What will be the focus of IPN for the coming years?

‘The first is on developing leadership among computer scientists. The second will be to improve our connection with industry. For specific subfields and universities strong links exist with for example regional companies, but on a national level there is no single point of entry yet for industry. We aim to take up or facilitate this role. A third important focus will be on communicating about IPN and its merits. Too many people on ICT research have never heard of the platform, nor do they know what we do to advance the field. And last but not least: we would like to improve our visibility as an independent field of science with its own talent. Too often, we are seen as some auxiliary field that is mainly there to support other fields of research.
Dreaming big, I would hope for a Spinoza Prize to be awarded to a computer scientist every five to ten years. That would be the ultimate culmination of most of the goals we pursue as IPN, since our main task is to advance and showcase the academic research into computer science in the Netherlands.’