There are people who seem to turn everything they touch into gold. Jim Stolze is one of them. He started his career by launching a free regional print magazine, founded online advertising agency Toscani, was at the helm of startpagina.nl (the biggest website in The Netherlands) and created the digital strategy for news website Nu.nl. In 2007, his career took yet another turn when he finished an Executive MBA with a focus on the impact of digitalization.
That’s quite the resume. When did you realize you wanted to invest your time in all things digital?
Jim Stolze: “That seed was planted at an early age. In 1985 my father gave me a Commodore 64 computer. I remember his words vividly: ‘Jimmy, this is your new sibling. It can’t do much, but you can teach it all kinds of things. We call it programming.’ His words turned out to be prophetic. I spent many summers learning to program. I remember we had this book on the shelf: Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. My father was really ahead of his time, because more than thirty years later it’s still kind of a bible for AI. Today it seems obvious that we can teach machines. But back then it was something I didn’t understand but passionately wanted to learn. This insight has influenced my entire career so far.”
It seems like you inherited that futuristic focus from your father. You’ve been at the forefront of many new technologies, most significantly AI.
“I wouldn’t go that far. I’m just very curious, and somehow my curiosity reaches a bit further into the future than most people’s. There’s also a lot of luck involved. I was an early adopter on Twitter, but that never lead to anything. The same thing happened with Bitcoin: I bought a few just to see how it worked and never sold them. Every once in a while that curiosity leads to something worthwhile.”
So when did you first come across AI?
“I visited Silicon Valley in 2014, and was lucky enough to get a glimpse behind the scenes at Google. They were doing research on self-driving cars and other technologies. It blew my mind. I had no idea AI was this advanced already. I immediately understood this was a new revolution, so I started digging: what can we do with this technology?”
This question led you to start an online AI course for the larger public. What is the idea behind the course?
“What struck me most when talking to governments and companies is how many misunderstandings there are about AI. There’s this mystification around it, fed by movies like Terminator and other science fiction fantasies. That’s a shame, because AI is a breakthrough technology that will shape our world. But many people have no idea what it’s about. The idea of the course is to help people understand the basic principles of AI. With support from several Belgian and Dutch universities, we were able to infuse the course with academic-level content. It’s completely free, so we have no real business model. We just want to reach as many people as possible. In The Netherlands we had about 220.000 participants, in Flanders 40.000.”
What is one of the biggest misunderstandings you hear about AI?
“There was a time when reports were published that claimed robots and algorithms will replace jobs, which is complete nonsense. These reports have been debunked, but journalists keep quoting from them. The latest research concluded that overall, robotization will create more jobs than it replaces. And in countries that have the highest automation, the unemployment rates are the lowest. A job is never just one task. What AI does is replace microtasks, say finding information in one place and copying it to another. This frees up time to do other things. Human tasks that involve creativity, compassion and empathy. Our course shows what AI can do and what that means for existing jobs. The goal of the AI course is to get people to reflect on how they could spend their time if they are relieved from repetitive microtasks. It’s about working together with AI.”
From your experience with Aigency, what are the biggest mistakes companies make when it comes to AI, automation and robotization?
“Many companies still have a lot of work to do in the data department. If you can’t transfer data from one place to another, start working on your data architecture before tinkering with AI. Once you have data streams, you can link them together and see if you can add a layer of intelligence. Quite often data quality and governance are the main issues.”
“The second mistake is that companies look at AI as an end in itself. You need to know what you want to achieve with it. The answer can be quite simple. For Heineken, we set up a machine learning system for the procurement department, which helps them process documents, invoices, etc. AI can save you a lot of money, but you need a concrete business case. Most AI concepts get stuck in the proof of concept.”
Let’s go back to 2007. You wrote your Master’s thesis on the impact of digitalization on our wellbeing. What was the conclusion of your research?
“The main question my thesis tried to answer was: ‘does technology improve our lives?’ A European survey at the time indicated that people with an Internet connection were significantly happier than people without. After my thesis, I also wrote a book to offer possible explanations. One of them was that the Internet is a window to the world, which makes you feel more connected and thus happier.”
Does this hypothesis still hold true today?
“I was a bit of an internet hippy back then, so my conclusions may have been a bit naive. I thought the Internet would set us free and democratize the world. There were signs that information overload could have an impact on our wellbeing. It’s funny to look back on it now. The real issue was lurking behind the corner: disinformation. It’s a perverse form of overload. We have a nearly infinite amount of information, but we don’t know what is true and what isn’t. Social media have a big part to play in that. They made a lot of mistakes in how they organized their business model. I’m still a tech optimist, but I truly believe reorganizing social media platforms is one of the biggest challenges of our time.”
What’s the essence of the problem?
“It’s an umbrella problem. Disinformation, manipulation, polarization … they’re all symptoms of the same disease. There’s fault in the fabric of the web, namely that social media are free. That means we pay with our data. The problem is that algorithms like those of Facebook and Twitter are aimed at maximizing attention. The more time you spend on the platform, the more money they make from advertising. The algorithm doesn’t want to inform us as best as it can, it wants us to stay engaged. We like what we agree with, but we read what makes us angry. So this anger is stimulated. Things like gamification are just more tools to keep us ‘addicted to the machine’. The essence of the problem is the business model. If that doesn’t change, things will only get worse. It’s tragic that someone like Mark Zuckerberg has so much power. He had so many opportunities to do something good for the world.”
Yet you’re still an optimist. What makes you optimistic these days?
“Luckily there’s a lot to be excited about. I organize hackathons to connect NGOs with hackers, developers and data scientists. And every year, I visit the AI for Good Conference in Geneva. It’s a gathering of people who don’t use AI for business goals, but sustainable development goals. One project was a cooperation with the Red Cross. In some areas, first responders can’t use Google Maps after natural disasters, because the roads are gone. They organized a platform where volunteers can look at satellite pictures, and literally draw the roads, rivers and buildings on those maps. A deep learning algorithm then analyzed these pictures and used them as input to create new maps. So now the algorithm knows how to interpret satellite pictures and sends real-time maps to first responders, without needing any volunteers. These kinds of projects make me hopeful that we can use AI to change the world for good as well.’