The world is becoming more and more connected. But at the same time, our lives are more separate than ever before – because our society is heavily divided, and not everyone benefits from digitalisation and globalisation. Where there is growing connectedness, there is also segregation and intolerance. Where borders disappear, loss of identity and alienation occur. And while technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) provide ground-breaking opportunities, social differences are increasing, privacy and online safety are at stake, and polarisation and fake news seem unavoidable.
How do we ensure that digitalisation is not there to dictate us but to serve us – including those who are less digitally skilled? How do we bridge cultural and ideological differences, as well as social and economic inequality due to fast-encroaching global networks and migration? In other words: how do we ensure a connected society? At Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, this question is central to the education and research of the profile theme: Connected World.
Connecting the disconnected
We bring together what can be (re)connected. Fellow human beings, no matter how different. Society and nature. City and countryside. Past, present and future. The real and virtual world. Human and artificial intelligence. Local, national and international politics and society. Connections that create space for expression of one’s own identity and those of others. Where there’s room for debate, but also a willingness to change and come closer together.
We aim for cohesiveness in our society. Historians, heritage experts, geographers and economists from VU Amsterdam work together on spatial plans for a liveable environment that’s in line with historical tradition, and that brings the existing local community and newcomers together. Linguists study how language technologies can unpack the social debate by objectively analysing information, knowledge and opinions on blogs. Our artificial intelligence experts work with theatre makers on socially intelligent robots that recognise people’s speech patterns, faces and basic emotions, so that robots can assist in healthcare or education.
Political scientists, communications experts and behavioural scientists research how we can combat polarisation and disinformation, and what motivates people to change their behaviour or to restart a dialogue, however big the barrier may be. Through gaming, we help young people to overcome negative self-image due to the pressures of social media. Through VR, we look at how we can combat problems like stress and the “plastic soup”. And in the humanities, we study how culture and nature influence each other and can be brought together in a more sustainable way.
As a university, we see an important role for ourselves in reaching a connected world. The wealth of backgrounds, cultures, religions and points of view in our diverse VU community creates a dynamic environment, sometimes leads to heated discussions, and contributes to the development of A Broader Mind among students and staff. It also ties in with our identity, in which our core values, free thinking, compassion and a critical eye play a major role.
We are proud of our VU campus, where students – many of whom are the first generation to go to university – scientists, employees, partners and Amsterdammers come together. Because virtual, international education offers wonderful opportunities, but physical contact is still indispensable when it comes to true connection.