AI research blossoms in Germany’s Cyber Valley

max planck institute ai research
I'm not a robot, I'm a real boy! Source: Max Planck Institute

Teaching robots to touch is at the heart of Katherine Kuchenbecker’s research. To demonstrate the task she faces, she plays a video showing a young woman whose hand is numb from a local anesthetic attempting to light a match with great difficulty. She stops the video after the woman fails and the match drops onto the table. Robots have the same problem. “Their actions are clumsy because they can’t feel,” she says.

Giving robots the tactile capabilities of human beings is only one facet of artificial intelligence (AI) research, which is receiving major investment at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (MPIIS) in the cities of Stuttgart and Tübingen in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, where Ms. Kuchenbecker is one of six directors.

The Swabian region is set to become Germany’s leading center of AI research and hopes to be the most important in the world. Max Planck Society President Martin Stratmann’s ambitious plans has led the area to be dubbed “Cyber Valley,” where science and industry meet to drive research in machine learning and intelligent systems. Mr. Stratmann wants his institute to play a role similar to Stanford University in Silicon Valley.

The MPIIS will soon add three more directors to expand the what is one of Europe’s largest AI research projects, launched in 2016. Numerous Germany industrial heavyweights, including BMW, Daimler, Porsche and Bosch, are looking to play a part.

Companies that work together with Max Planck researchers hope to take their place at the cutting edge of the digital revolution. The country’s automotive industry is already grappling with the fourth industrial revolution transforming manufacturing. If Cyber Valley really wants to emulate Stanford and Silicon Valley, it needs to grow fast.

Engineering giant Bosch invested €7 million in cybersecurity research, focusing on networked factories and ways to streamline manufacturing. But Christoph Peylo, Bosch’s head of AI development, says Cyber Valley’s attractiveness extends beyond the automotive industry. US tech giants such as Facebook have also been attracted to the research hub. Amazon is setting up its own research team at the Tübingen campus and plans on hiring 100 scientists over the next five years.

Turning researchers into successful founders is one of Cyber Valley’s biggest goals and greatest challenges.

Amazon’s location choice was easy to make, says Ralph Herbrich, head of Amazon’s machine-learning division. You go where the experts are, he says, and “The Max Planck Society established professorships and a research culture early on, making this region an international center in the field of AI.”

Rather than recruiting an entire research department, Amazon will support “Amazon scholars,” such as Michael J. Black and Bernhard Schölkopf, two world-renowned directors at MPIIS. Researchers will devote 20 percent of their time to the company, while spending 80 percent on independent scientific research. This is the only way Cyber Valley can keep up with US companies, says Mr. Stratmann, the Max Planck president.

“Our research relies on the availability of large amounts of data,” Mr. Stratmann says: “Google, Facebook and Amazon are attracting top-class scientists in the field.” But instead of competing with the US giants, he made them partners. This helps prevent brain drain, keeping know-how in the region.

Turning researchers into successful founders is one of the biggest challenges faced by Cyber Valley. Researchers at elite institutions tend to prioritize research rather than explore commercial applications.

Frequently, German institutions make a discovery only for it to be monetized by US companies, explains Florian Kirschenhofer, startup manager at the Max Planck Innovation hub in Munich. Mr. Kirschenhofer’s job is to help researchers become successful founders, with coaching, help securing venture capital or creating a business plan. They frequently work together with High-Tech Gründerfonds, a state-run investment fund that has so far financed nearly 500 companies with more than €800 million.

Mr. Kirschenhofer believes that public-private research collaborations will increase the visibility of Cyber Valley and “attract foreign investors to the startups.” Ms. Kuchenbecker’s startup could be among them. “Online shopping has a disadvantage: When I look at jeans, I can only feel the materials in the store.” Ms. Kuchenbecker’s work in the lab could one day let shoppers feel fabrics through their tablets and smartphones. She has not told Amazon about her idea — yet.

This article originally appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the authors:

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