AI research in Germany – expertise comes with responsibility

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New technologies provoke contradictory emotions: they fuel fears, while at the same time giving rise to optimistic visions of the future. That was exactly what happened when railways accelerated transport in the nineteenth century, and it is even more true of artificial intelligence (AI). And yet, from a more sober perspective, the term refers to nothing more alarming than computer programs that are designed to self-optimise. All the same, both the hopes and the concerns are justified, as we can see from our experiences of digital communication platforms such as Facebook. They have brought the dream of a globally interconnected village significantly closer. At the same time, however, they have also played their part in negatively influencing public debate via the algorithms they use to control the flow of information. Acknowledging the importance of artificial intelligence, the German government has chosen to dedicate German Science Year 2019 to this technology.

Focusing on humans and society

AI research in Germany – expertise comes with responsibility
Artificial intelligence is taking over more and more areas of our lives.

These days there are numerous initiatives designed to ensure that AI is developed and used in ways that will benefit humans to the greatest possible extent. Among these are the international "Asilomar AI Principles" drawn up by AI researchers and companies, and CLAIRE, an initiative launched by European scientists that makes humans the focus of AI research. The German government is also keen to steer developments in the field of AI. In November 2018 for example, it adopted an "Artificial Intelligence Strategy" with a view to establishing "AI made in Germany" as a quality brand synonymous with responsible AI.

One element of this programme is broad-based societal dialogue organised via the Plattform Lernende Systeme. Around 200 experts from companies, research institutions, unions and NGOs are represented on this platform. "We must enter into an open dialogue with all segments of society about the potential and risks of AI. This is the only way in which people will come to trust the technology and leverage its opportunities for Germany and Europe", says Karl-Heinz Streibich, the platform's co-chair and president of the National Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech).

100 new AI professorships

The government initiative is keen to foster the development of artificial intelligence, among other things by setting up a national research consortium and a Franco-German research and innovation network. 100 new professorships will also be established. Even twenty years ago, Germany was already focusing on AI research when it launched the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI).

The advantage of industry expertise

Today, more than 550 scientists and administrators, not to mention over 430 student research assistants from more than 60 countries, work on roughly 240 research projects at the DFKI. One of them is Professor Martin Ruskowski. A mechanical engineer, he heads the Innovative Factory Systems department and conducts research in two fields at the Technische Universität Kaiserslautern: human-machine interaction, and predictive maintenance in industrial production. "Germany's great strength", explains Professor Ruskowski, who moved to the university from the industrial robot manufacturer KUKA in 2017, "lies in its extensive knowledge of individual areas of industry." This knowledge allows various AI methods to be applied more quickly in practice. When it comes to trialling their concepts, he and his team take advantage of the SmartFactory demonstrator and research platform in Kaiserslautern.

A rescue team made up of humans and robots

Humans and robots are working more closely together not only in factories, however, but also in rescue and relief operations. Following the severe earthquake that hit Amatrice in Italy in August 2016, mobile robot systems were used for the first time. In future, the idea is for rescue robots equipped with cameras, laser scanners and robotic arms to operate autonomously so as to relieve the burden on the emergency services. Together with her colleagues, computational linguist Dr Ivana Kruijff-Korbayová from Saarland University wants to ensure smooth communication between the emergency services and unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) – to the point where humans and robots can work together as an effective team.

ROBDEKON: robot systems for decontamination in hostile environments (only in German)

In future, learning computer systems are also to help construction site vehicles operate autonomously. This is the vision of researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute of Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation (IOSB) in Karlsruhe and their cooperation partners from research and industry. The idea is for self-driving diggers and climbing robots to recover hazardous substances and transport them away when chemically contaminated areas need to be cleaned up or nuclear facilities decommissioned. Humans coordinate and supervise the work from the safety of a control centre and intervene via remote control only if problems arise. > Centre of excellence "ROBDEKON" (only in German)