The German Research Center for Artifical Intelligence (DFKI) gives Germany an incalculable competitive edge in the global marketplace. Investors are claiming to ride the second wave of digitization on the back of artifical intelligence.
Author: Prof. Wolfgang Wahlster Photos: Festo AG, ToKo, Natalie Bothur, Scheer Group, Ines Escherich/Fraunhofer Illustrations: Andrew Timmins
Prof. Wolfgang Wahlster is the Director and CEO of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence and a full professor for artificial intelligence at Saarland University. Together with Henning Kagermann and Wolf-Dieter Lukas, he developed the Industry 4.0 project and published it for the first time in 2011.
Artificial Intelligence (AI), the technology that enables computers to behave intelligently and solve problems independently, has hit the mainstream. AI is everywhere – whether we use intelligent personal assistants such as Siri or Cortana on our smartphones, translate Korean websites with Google Translate, activate autopilot functions in our car or trust our bank to block fraudulent charges to our credit card. Many of us already take AI for granted. However, this research field is at the absolute vanguard of computer science as it constantly tests and overcomes the current limits of digitizability. When the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) was established 30 years ago, artificial intelligence was the darling of the IT industry, largely thanks to knowledge-based expert and assistant systems. Today, these systems are commonplace in many IT application fields.
As interest has surged in machine learning, collaborative robotics and autonomous systems, our research has returned to center stage for IT users around the world. From smart factories in Industry 4.0, autonomous vehicles, next-generation smart communications networks and utility grids to personalized learning systems and intelligent cybersecurity platforms – none of the trends that have captured imaginations across our society and economy would be possible without AI technologies. It’s no surprise, then, that virtually all industrialized nations are setting up and generously funding new AI institutes. The institutes established by carmakers Toyota and Tesla in Silicon Valley, each endowed with 1 billion US dollars.
To put it another way: global research into innovative AI-based digitization solutions is booming. No wonder – every one of these application fields represents a vast market. I believe DFKI is well-equipped to play a major role in this regard, with locations in Kaiserslautern, Saarbrücken and Bremen, a branch office in Osnabrück, another project office in Berlin and a living lab in St. Wendel, Saarland. Established back in 1988 as a public private partnership (PPP), our center is Europe’s leading applied research institution in the field of artificial intelligence. And our structure – a non-profit PPP with a lean organization and a strong research dynamic – is viewed internationally as a cutting-edge model for high-level research and disruptive innovation. That explains why DFKI receives funding from not only the German federal government and the states of Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland and Bremen, but from a host of German and international high-tech companies as well.
DFKI’s industrial partners, who hold shares and are represented on the Supervisory Board, include blue chip corporations with global footprints such as Deutsche Telekom, Airbus, Bosch, BMW, VW, SAP, and Software AG as well as successful German mid-market businesses such as Harting, Empolis and Claas. Multinational enterprises with German R&D operations such as Google, Microsoft and Intel are also DFKI shareholders. Recently, strong global demand for AI expertise has sparked a veritable bidding war for more DFKI shares, particularly among companies located in Asia and the US, resulting in multiple increases to its share capital. At DFKI, we have always pursued a policy of openness and integration toward international partners and companies, even if they compete with one another in the marketplace. In research and pre-development phases, pre-competitive cooperation is absolutely essential to establishing an open culture of innovation and enabling fast-paced development to market maturity.
SCIENCE SEEKS TRANSPARENCY
However, mid-market enterprises don’t have to be shareholders to innovate and collaborate with all 18 research departments and research groups, nine competence centers and seven living labs that develop product functions, prototypes and patentable solutions from application-oriented basic research at DFKI. By embedding AI in our high-tech environment, DFKI and its partners find ways to sculpt human-machine interactions so that the technology adapts to the individual, not the other way around. Thanks to machine learning and big data, software will no longer be developed by programmers, but will be generated by AI systems of the kind developed by our Deep Learning Competence Center. As we digitize services and roll out AI-based production systems in Industry 4.0, we can preserve Germany’s competitiveness over the long run by integrating AI into our economy’s blockbuster products, from combine harvesters to cars to dishwashers. Nothing will change that – not even the takeover and cooperation offers that DFKI regularly receives, particularly from Asia and North America, and that have dramatically increased in number in recent months. In the new race to integrate artificial intelligence, Germany is in the pole position thanks to DFKI.
Being home to the world’s largest research center in this field represents an incalculable advantage for German industry and civil society. Currently, 880 international experts from over 60 nations are responsible for more than 115 million euros in total assets and 42 million euros in sales a year. And our revenues have risen 15 percent annually on average in recent years. Our world-class team of AI specialists is a rich treasure trove of talent, judging from the rising number of attempts to poach staff. This clearly reflects the high international regard accorded to the education that young researchers receive at DFKI. Over the years, more than 100 of our employees have been hired as professors for artifficial intelligence at universities in Germany and worldwide. The DFKI research departments headed by 25 internationally regarded professors have introduced 55 patents and 115 product features into the marketplace.
“We integrate AI into our economy's blockbuster products.” Prof. Wolfgang Wahlster Director DFKI
We do more than push solutions out into the market, though. DFKI has been recognized as the research center that produces the most start-ups: around one-third of our employees have started 78 spin-offs. We support these nascent entrepreneurs through a network of venture capitalists, part-time work schedules and access to incubator and accelerator programs supported by organizations such as the EU as part of its EIT Digital program. We also maintain close ties with our alumni. For example, we allow start-ups to rent space on the DFKI campus at market rates so they can stay on top of cutting-edge research while building up their business. Also, we usually give spinoffs license agreements for DFKI technologies that they have to gradually pay down as soon as they turn a profit.
POPULAR CAREER STEPPING STONE
We do this because, for many researchers, collaborating in DFKI projects represents an important waystation between graduate school and the rest of their careers. At our institute, they can acquire valuable experience in world-class applied research projects with commercial manufacturers before either choosing an academic career as a professor, a managerial position in industrial research or an entrepreneurial existence in their own spin-off company. With at least 20 PhDs and 100 computer science degrees per year on average, DFKI produces as many young researchers in total as a mid-sized computer science department at a German university. This track record has burnished DFKI’s reputation as an efficient career stepping stone and drives the transfer of knowledge and technology through “its” people. And that, in my view, makes a much more lasting impact than any technology transfer project.