AI Research Takes Root in Germany

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Germany is at the forefront of artificial intelligence (AI) in Europe, with leaders from various industries working alongside top research universities in southwest Germany’s Cyber Valley to develop increasingly sophisticated machines with wide capabilities. 

The southwestern region of Germany has long been home to both academic and industrial heavyweights. World-class technical universities have co-existed with global giants such as BMW, Porsche, IBM, and Bosch for generations, but now a new initiative aims to bring these and other partners together to vault Germany into position as a leader in the fourth industrial revolution: one that hinges on the ability of scientists to create intelligent machines that can think, see, feel, respond, and collaborate with humans.

Taking its cue from the world’s top region for  AI, Silicon Valley, a consortium of universities in the Stuttgart-Tübingen region announced the Cyber Valley initiative in 2016, uniting the area’s industrial and academic institutions to accelerate the development and commercialization of AI technologies for applications in the automotive, healthcare, and manufacturing sectors, among others. Partnerships between academia and industry are crucial for moving promising innovations from the lab to the marketplace, as well as for fostering a culture of entrepreneurship.

Cyber Valley

Cyber Valley has quickly become one of Europe’s largest research collaborations to advance breakthroughs in AI, attracting not only scholars from some of the top research institutions in the world, including the University of California Berkeley, Harvard University, University of Cambridge, and Columbia University, but also some of the world’s most influential corporations

In 2017, Amazon joined the roster of companies adding their support to Cyber Valley and established a research hub near the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen. Another global technology giant, Google, is an industry partner of The German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI). Home to 800 scientists DFKI is one of the world’s largest research centers dedicated to AI. Germany consistently ranks among the top countries in the world for the number and impact of AI-related research publications, and is fourth only to Silicon Valley, Paris, and London in terms of the number of AI-related startups.

A Major Technological Leap

Germany, like many other countries, has benefited from the advent of 21st century automation technologies, which transformed manufacturing and production. The next step in the progression of automation is actually a major technological leap–the development of robots and automated systems that can not only complete tasks, but can synergize with humans. Intelligent systems that can see, analyze situations, and sensitively respond to real-time cues—from human gestures and facial expressions to pedestrians crossing a crowded street— will reshape transportation, public health, the military, healthcare, construction, and production. Researchers in Cyber Valley and at institutions throughout Germany are tackling some of the most challenging—and exciting—aspects of AI research and development necessary to make that leap.

A major focus of AI research is creating technologies that facilitate human-computer interaction by replicating the human sensory system and allowing robotic systems to recognize voices, perceive sensation and pressure, and detect three-dimensional spatial information and visual cues. Computer vision, which underlies technologies ranging from autonomous vehicles to interactive robots, is one of the fastest-growing areas of research and investment in AI around the globe.

A Vision for the Future

As Prof. Dr. Andreas Tünnermann, director of the Institute of Applied Physics and Precision Engineering at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena and director of the Fraunhofer IOF recently told a crowd gathered at the German House in New York: most models for computer vision are based on the single-aperture model of the human eye— a paradigm he sees as outdated and ripe for change. The ubiquitous smartphone camera, produced billions of times each year, is perfect for instant, high-resolution imaging yet falls far short of the sophisticated optics needed to take human-machine interaction to the next level. Tünnermann’s group, with support from the German Ministry of Research and Technology, is advancing computer vision with a radical new lens design inspired by the “cluster eyes” of insects and parasites. Arrays of tiny lenses, each which captures and transmits a partial image of the field of view, can be arranged in any shape or configuration. “In an insect, the brain compiles the partial images from each lens into a complete picture, but in a machine, we use image processing technology to stitch them together,” Tünnermann explained. “This ‘facet vision’ delivers the same optical resolution as a single-aperture camera with far greater flexibility.”

Other researchers throughout the country are devising machine learning methods to help robots and other intelligent systems utilize the information they glean from the outside world to improve performance, make decisions, navigate, and literally “learn” through practice and repetition, much the way humans do. Working collaboratively, Germany’s engineers, computer scientists, and biologists are shedding light on how the wisdom of human biological processes may someday be replicated in a new generation of intelligent machines.