The old knowledge engineering department had a turbulent history, dotted with feuds and quarrels. “We found ourselves in calmer waters ten years ago when Jaap van den Herik and Erik Postma left for Tilburg”, says professor of mathematics Ralf Peeters. Professor Van den Herik in particular had a track record of conflicts.
After that, the student numbers doubled, the review committees have been full of praise, and last year the Keuzegids labelled Knowledge Engineering a ‘top programme’. Student evaluations of the programme and the facilities are excellent. “During the research review last year we were informed – I’m paraphrasing here – that we’d become a medium-sized course and should start behaving accordingly”, says Peeters. “In other words, not just keep on ticking over with a handful of people, but really set up a mature management structure.”
Black marks, too, are turned into assets. “We’re looking for new staff, but it’s quite a challenge. Two researchers will start in October but it should have been four. For one of them, from New York, the step came just a little too early, and the other received 1.5 million euros in research funding from her new German university. Offering something extra doesn’t fit in our work culture, but it does help. At SBE there’s talk of attracting fifteen data scientists, but it’s easier said than done. These days Google and Apple are buying up entire departments. No wonder all our graduates have jobs within a few months.”
Data science and knowledge engineering have taken off, not least because the field is flourishing like never before. “Over the last five years data science, artificial intelligence and robotisation have reached the next level. Computers have mastered board games, robots are being equipped with emotions, and self-driving cars are the future. Über has ordered 62,000 of them for Arizona alone. But above all, the opportunities are growing to unleash a whole lot of computing power on increasing amounts of data.”
This plays into the hands of the Maastricht Department of Data Science and Knowledge Engineering, as every faculty is now keen to get involved in data research. “Especially medicine; the concept of personalised medicine relies on the data of individual patients. But cultural scientists and lawyers analyse data, too, when they’re investigating historical archives or working on cybersecurity, respectively. Knowledge engineers can help with those kinds of analysis. We’re getting more and more questions from faculties about this.”
Together with the School of Business and Economics and the Science Programme, Knowledge Engineering has established the new bachelor’s programme in Business Engineering. The programme was supposed to start in September. “But the accreditation procedure took longer than we thought”, says interim dean Thomas Cleij. “And the NVAO committee felt that we had to position ourselves more clearly, identify our true colours. Is the emphasis on business or engineering? The new target date is September 2019.”
Last year an institute for data science was launched in Maastricht, headed by distinguished university professor Michel Dumontier from Stanford. The initial collaboration with the DKE did not run smoothly. “The division of roles between the institute and our department was not always clear”, explains Peeters. “Now it is. The institute won’t be focusing on hard-core methods, as we do. And we won’t combine databases or look at fair principles of doing research. The atmosphere has cleared up.”
The Maastricht habitat for knowledge engineers is also changing. The former Faculty of Humanities and Sciences has been renamed Science and Engineering, and is set to develop into a full-fledged sciences faculty. “We scientists feel at home there. That said, we need to recruit new biologists, physicists and chemists, and forge alliances with Aachen, Leuven, Nijmegen and Eindhoven. I see a critical mass in terms of content on topics like biobased materials, business intelligence, gravitational waves.” The latter research field involves the underground Einstein Telescope, which the province hopes to bring to Limburg.
What more do the knowledge engineers want? “We may have driving robots and drones, but you’d be hard-pressed to call us a hardware department”, says Peeters. “We haul out the robots on open days, but we don’t really do a lot of research on them. So there are opportunities for growth there. And it would be useful to have more of that kind of technology in house.”