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TITLE WATER FOR THE

TITLE WATER FOR THE DIGITAL MILL Data-based research is transforming Berlin into an engine for the development of manifold AI applications Text: Inka Thaysen 16

The image of an underground canal system and that of a clinical server room could not be more different. Indeed, apart from sharing a monotonous background noise, the two have very little in common. So it’s surprising that Professor Dr. Volker Markl drew precisely this comparison at a recent conference of international experts in an attempt to explain what it is that he does. Markl sees himself as a kind of plumber, describing his work in very vivid terms: “You need pipes, high-pressure pumps and treatment plants to be able to do great things with water, like building fountains and cooking delicious meals. It’s my job to make sure everything runs smoothly with regard to the water supply.” Of course, the water in this analogy represents an entirely different raw material – one that is in high demand in our increasingly digitalized era, namely data! Markl is head of the Berlin Big Data Center (BBDC) and co-director of the Berlin Center for Machine Learning (BZML). These two Berlin institutions work closely together to examine the fundamentals of what is commonly described as artificial intelligence (AI). This term is not always the first choice in research circles, notes BZML spokesperson and BBDC co-director Prof. Dr. Klaus-Robert Müller, one of Markl’s colleagues and himself an international though leader in the field: “AI is a word designed to give the general public a vague notion of what we do,” he says. As Müller notes, the foundation of AI is, in fact, machine learning and database management, and ultimately also mathematics and computer science. Thanks to the close cooperation between the BBDC and BZML, Berlin now holds a truly leading position in Germany and also plays a pioneering role far beyond its borders. “All machines learn from data. Period,” says Müller, emphasizing the universal potential of the work being done in the capital. The ultimate aim is to procure an adequate amount of this data resource, handle it responsibly, manage its myriad of individual pieces and thus “feed” machines in such a way that they can analyze it in an optimal manner and bring connections to light. “This doesn’t mean sitting in front of a computer all day in a quiet room,” notes Markl, correcting the pre-conceived idea many have of his job. “In fact, it is a very communicative profession. It’s varied and exciting and has plenty of room for ideas and visions. We launch projects, write scientific articles, assist in the emergence and growth of startups, cooperate with industry and generally get around a lot.” “Innovation cannot be planned” Prof. Dr. Klaus-Robert Müller Markl and Müller, two multiple award-winning scientists, have already celebrated a number of successes, as their teams regularly function the engine for a number of popular developments. For example, the “Apache Flink” application used worldwide today owes its existence to Markl’s research. This app links computers to one another and manages their cooperation in the analysis of giant amounts of data. Müller’s working group alone is responsible for the founding of 15 companies and the creation of 400 new jobs in the capital. Among other applications, his research has made its way into the software used in image and speech recognition, in autonomous driving for the auto industry and in the field of medicine, where it has assisted in the analysis and forecasting of cancer cell development and used in brain-computer interfaces designed to help locked-in patients make their wishes known. “Centers of expertise are platforms through which we exchange knowledge with different disciplines,” says Müller. “We are in constant dialogue with the business community and ultimately also with society. Indeed, we continually make an effort to help people understand what it is that we do exactly.” As Müller notes, the ultimate goal is to generate enthusiasm here in Berlin and make the opportunities understandable to all. It is thus also important to transport these ideas to the political realm. Last summer, Chancellor Angela 17

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