AI made in Germany? What German researchers can learn from Silicon Valley
© Fraunhofer IAO
Sunny California seems to be the global pacemaker of major innovations in the IT and high–tech industries: The Internet giants Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, like many other tech companies, have their headquarters in Silicon Valley. The innovative start–up scene in the Bay Area is at the forefront of developments in artificial intelligence (AI) – closely followed by China. And where do we stand? How does the German economy manage to keep up in the race?
At the conference "Transatlantic Sync. Germany & Silicon Valley: Shaping a shared digital future" in Mountain View, leading voices from politics, business and science have conducted a global assessment of the current situation. We participated in the conference with the project "FutureWork360". The aim of the project is to use virtual reality to make our innovation laboratories accessible worldwide on an Internet platform and thereby promoting international networking. I have summarized the impulses of our one–week delegation trip to Silicon Valley for you:
For three days, the Computer History Museum – not far from Google's headquarters – was transformed into a forum for the exchange of knowledge on AI. Leaders from the digital economy, research and politics came together to discuss how Germany and the Silicon Valley can work together to harness the tremendous opportunities of AI, robotics and other new digital technologies while effectively addressing the social, economic and political challenges they present. Because we are in the midst of a huge social upheaval – we are walking into a future in which AI–controlled machines think, make decisions and perform tasks, which we once thought were clearly "human".
The AI Race: The USA at the top – Germany with a lot of potential, but deficits in implementation
The USA is the breeding ground of digital talent among all countries with about 3000 PhD students per year in the field of AI (for comparison: in Germany there are about 170). Furthermore, five of the top ten and 134 of the 500 most powerful commercially available supercomputers are currently located in the US. And not only that! The largest number of AI start–ups also gather there. Three–quarters of all internationally enforced AI patents were filed by US players, compared to only two percent from the German counterparts. The figures show how urgent it is for Europeans, and especially Germans, to catch up in the key technology of artificial intelligence. Christoph Keese, CEO of Axel Springer hy GmbH, summarizes the situation in his words: "We must finally wake up and stop investing so little in AI. We'll have to put billions into it." The investment in more digital and technological education and the appeal to develop more AI–based software was also a core demand of the conference participants.
The fact that Europeans also have a lot to gain on the credit side of AI development is often ignored: Germany participates in a globally networked, technology–based economy and plays a key role in shaping Europe's considerable influence. European industry – and Germany in particular – sits on a treasure trove of data from modern factories with first–class automation and robotics capabilities. Now it is necessary to build up a solid ecosystem for the development of "AI made in Germany" in order to be able to survive in international comparison. According to the conference‘s white paper, the following factors are critical to success:
- Development and expansion of data infrastructure
- A higher level of digital and technological education
- Intensive interdisciplinary cooperation
- Risk appetite paired with considerable public and private resources
- Accept and promote a positive perception of new technologies and start–ups within society
“There are no economics without ethics“
In a world of data streams, it is also becoming increasingly important to travel with a value compass. The ZEIT Foundation therefore raised the following question at the conference: Do we need basic digital rights? Since 2016, a group of committed citizens, supported by the ZEIT Foundation, has been drawing up a European Charter of Fundamental Digital Rights. In 18 articles, the Charter sets out principles for data protection, handling big data, artificial intelligence, robotics and social behaviour control. Our institute also participates in this debate and is involved both in the "High–Level Group on Artificial Intelligence" and in the "Learning Systems" platform. What I have learned here: It is important to promote responsible and people–centred technology development – which is not possible without a clearly defined ethical framework.
Ecosystems spring from the mind: Bringing innovations forward faster with a positive mind–set
The positive start–up mentality has become part of the DNA of the Bay Area. In addition to the challenging ethical discussions, the opportunities offered by AI are always in the foreground in Silicon Valley – an attitude that we undoubtedly still have to work on in Germany. Our visits to Stanford and Berkeley Universities, the Co–Working Space Silicon Valley Robotics and NVIDIA have also given us exciting insights into the Silicon Valley's innovation ecosystem. The difference to the high–tech landscape in Germany lays not so much in the technology or the corporate landscape, but in the way in which all players interact with each other. The corporate and start–up scene and the university environment work closely together, with little organizational friction and a similar mind–set: Already during the studies, the focus is put on entrepreneurship: the (joint) research and development of innovations. In my opinion, this mentality is the decisive difference to AI development in Europe. We can learn a lot from this innovative strength and way of thinking – especially how to make better use of our own existing potential. The recent accession of the Fraunhofer–Gesellschaft to the Cyber Valley Tübingen with the Fraunhofer approach of bringing basic research into practical industrial application as quickly as possible via the AI Progress Centre is a promising step in the right direction.
Yeama Bangali is a science communication expert at Fraunhofer Insitute for Industrial Engineering IAO in Stuttgart, Germany. She also manages the multi–channel content of the new FutureWork360 research initiative which is part of the international BMBF campaign "The Future of Work".
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