Delft University of Technology establishes Responsible Digital Innovation Programme directed by Prof. Dirk Helbing

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Delft University of Technology appoints Dirk Helbing as professor for the new research programme “Engineering Social Technologies for a Responsible Digital Future” at the faculty of Technology, Policy and management. Helbing, also professor of Computational Social Science at ETH Zurich, specialises in transferring and applying principles and methods from physics as well as mathematics and IT to the social sciences.

Interdisciplinary approach

‘In recent years, we have seen an increasing cross-fertilisation between the natural sciences and social sciences,’ says Helbing, one of the pioneers in the relatively new field of Computational Social Science. This development is embraced by both Delft University of Technology and ETH Zurich. “Dirk Helbing’s appointment at Delft University of Technology further strengthens the connections with ETH Zurich”, underlines Delft’s Rector Magnificus Karel Luyben. Helbing’s work has already resulted in a stream of specific applications of which the most obvious examples involve analysing, modelling and improving pedestrian and traffic flows. The knowledge acquired from this work has since proven its worth in planning for large masses of pedestrians.

Global Spread of Diseases

Other applications include coordinating self-driving vehicles to counter freeway congestion, self-organised traffic light control schemes and a model that discusses how to make Western gas supply more resilient to external disruptions. Together with other scientists, Helbing developed a model for a better understanding of the global spread of diseases, which was also used to assess the risks for other countries during the Ebola crisis.

Measuring the world

Computational Social Science can celebrate various successes, but this very much depends on the availability of good data. The models used need to be based on, and fed by, reliable data from the real world.  Therefore, Helbing says: ‘A substantial part of the work revolves around this. We have to be sure of acquiring good data, in its social and local context. For this reason, an important step is to create a new and open platform for collecting those data. With the Internet of Things, we could now measure the entire world, if we wished. We will soon understand a much wider range of social processes and activities, including how to build social capital’ such as cooperation and trust.

Ethical considerations

The increasing power of this modelling, understanding and coordination of socio-technical systems also requires ethical considerations. ‘Because,’ says Helbing, ‘if you do not develop these new systems carefully and properly, it can be very damaging for society. This is definitely the case for new information and communication technologies, as demonstrated by all the privacy issues we have seen.’ This was one of the main reasons why Helbing opted to work at Delft University of Technology. ‘The faculty of Technology, Policy and Management of this university is very good at considering the ethical issues involved in new technology and taking them into account during the design process.’ As coordinator of the programme Engineering Social Technologies for a Responsible Digital Future, Helbing, who is also the initiator of Nervousnet and the coordinator of FuturICT, will hire ten PhD candidates to work actively in this area.

Helbing believes that it is crucial for new technology to be designed responsibly. ‘If that is successful, everyone in society can benefit from new technology’.

More information

Professor Dirk Helbing dhelbing@ethz.ch

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