In general, what does the term artificial intelligence (AI) cover? What are the goals of research projects in this area?
Hagen: The beginnings of artificial intelligence first modeled expert systems that mapped human knowledge to support flesh-and-blood experts in their work. The goal was to model human problem-solving behavior. Procedures for receiving and processing information were supposed to be integrated to achieve a qualitative improvement and enrichment of traditional information systems. These efforts later developed into increasingly complex software systems that were also partially able to emulate human cognitive abilities: the ability to apprehend information, derive knowledge from it, and change behavior as a result.
Artificial intelligence has since established itself as a formal discipline within informatics. In research and teaching today, it is an important component of informatics and has a distinctively interdisciplinary character. That character is seen in the five research areas at DFKI: deduction and multiagent systems, language technology, intelligent user interfaces, and intelligent visualization and simulation systems.
What is your research lab (Intelligent Visualization and Simulation Systems) working on, and what results of your research have proven viable in practice as applications?
Hagen: The research lab for Intelligent Visualization and Simulation Systems (IVS) is developing interactive techniques to make the contents and terms of scientific simulations understandable to human beings. In particular, methods of virtual reality in connection with algorithms from artificial intelligence are of interest. They find application in the areas of human modeling, medical informatics, and intelligent visualization techniques.
For example, within the context of a seat belt design service project, a service for virtual human models was created that enables the precise design of seat belts in vehicles. The service simulates and evaluates the precision of register for a given vehicle’s geometry and passenger description. The parameters here include the body measurements of the passengers and the kinematics of the seat-belt system, including its course inside the vehicle and its contact points with the vehicle. The program varies the body form of the virtual passengers and the description of the seat-belt system. The results include the position of the deviating points and the adjustment options that allow obtaining optimal precision of register of the seat belt for individuals or for the totality of the members of a test cohort. This system was integrated into a computer-aided design (CAD) system that is used in the German automobile industry.
What questions does AI research face today?
Hagen: The beginnings of AI had ambitious goals for recreating human intelligence and modeling human knowledge. But the focus of international AI research today has become much more application oriented. Today artificial intelligence is seen as a means to process special application areas, such as human-technology interaction or visualization techniques.
One of the most important challenges for the knowledge society today is to create intelligent user interfaces. The enormous increase of IT applications in all areas of life has created a need for interfaces that simplify access to information and applications. The need is increased by the rapidly increasing complexity of IT systems and the shorter periods of time available to users to learn the applications and perform their tasks. The goal of projects, such as SmartKom – a project involving intuitive human-technology interaction – is to develop designs that can overcome the inhibitions of computer novices toward information technology. The real need is to develop a self-explanatory, user-adaptive interface for the interaction of human beings and technology.
The visualization of information is another important task. Depending upon the given situation, users should be supplied with exactly the knowledge that they need. The project called SIMILAR is such an example. Here the operations personnel of complex technical systems, such as sewage facilities, should have access to information on mobile devices. The crux of the matter is to format the information according to a context-specific visualization and so to support decision-making actively. This type of efficient provision of information will thus increase the performance of operations.
Can IT research improve AI so much that it approaches human intelligence?
Hagen: I can put you at ease here. The computer will never be in a position to simulate the cognitive conditions of humans completely. Those kinds of systems would have to explain the human spirit. And how can human beings develop such a program when they themselves cannot explain the human spirit? The computer will never be as intelligent as a human being, and that’s not the goal of research. In fact, AI research wants to make the computer a useful and intelligent helpmate to human beings. And in many disciplines, the computer will be far better than its human counterpart. For example, only a few grand masters can defeat a chess computer today.
What the options for applications are available from the innovative software technologies of DFKI – in the IT industry or for companies like SAP?
Hagen: I see a great potential for the use of artificial intelligence in the IT industry in general – and for companies like SAP in particular – because its software has a great deal of information to process. For example, intelligent visualization can be a great help to users in assisting them to filter out the information relevant to them. The innovative technologies of knowledge management are quite helpful to optimize workflows in a company. In addition, multiagent systems, intelligent interfaces, and language technologies offer a variety of application areas in the IT industry. Absolutely: the industry can profit from the designs for innovative software technologies developed at DFKI.
As a university professor, how do you compare the future of IT research in Germany and international research efforts?
Hagen: Investments in education and research build the foundation for growth, employment, and social progress. In particular, information and communications technology, as one of the central innovative areas of the twenty-first century, show high potential for markets and employment – a potential that increasingly pervades all areas of society. Research in the IT area is a basic prerequisite for continuing to advance structural change in both the economy and in society. In this manner, we will be able to secure the future competitiveness of Germany for the future and in the long term.
The high growth in information and communications technology in Germany is based upon the outstanding scientific foundation that has been created in Germany in the past years. Germany has a good competitive position here. But we must continue to develop and use our leading position more intensively in individual areas with appropriate support for IT research. Only in this way can we keep up with the U.S. and create a competitive information economy in Germany and in Europe.