Falling Walls Circle

Welcome Address by Georg Schütte State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Falling Walls Circle
© BMBF/Hans-Joachim Rickel

Professor Mlynek,
Ms Nowotny,
Ladies and Gentlemen!

I was allowed 5 minutes to introduce the rather complex topic of "Human Genius in the Age of Artificial Intelligence". I will try to answer this challenge with 3 propositions:

1. Artificial Intelligence is not just any innovation: It is a revolution which, if developed properly, holds the potential of changing and improving our life and our economies in a fundamental way.

As with any technical novelty which is a hot issue in the media, policy-makers ask basic questions such as: How will it affect people in their everyday lives? What does it mean for our economy? And how great will the changes be?

The Federal Government assumes that Artificial Intelligence, or AI, holds great potential for changing our coexistence in a fundamental way. These changes are already becoming evident and will become more so.

Many people believe the use of Artificial Intelligence holds opportunities – for everyone's personal life and for society as a whole. The early detection of diseases by means of imaging technologies could be revolutionized. Autonomous or assisted driving can prevent serious accidents and save lives. Speech recognition programmes have become invaluable – and not only for the blind.

However, with a view to the public debate we have to state clearly that not everything that claims to be AI is indeed AI!

The concept of Artificial Intelligence is hard to grasp because there is no standard definition of “intelligence”, let alone Artificial Intelligence. Not everything that seems intelligent is in fact intelligent – the Social Bots in last year's discussion at the Circle comes to mind.

Computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum published the computer programme ELIZA in 1966 in order to demonstrate the processing of natural language by a computer. The German Internet Institute is named after Weizenbaum who lived from 1923 to 2008. Throughout his life, Weizenbaum took a critical look at the relation between man and machine. The ELIZA programme can simulate different interlocutors via scripts. The programme became famous for its perfunctory simulation of a psychotherapist. The communication behaviour of test subjects towards the programme was (practically) identical with those towards a human interlocutor. Apparently it was not very important whether the person answering a call was actually a human or a computer programme. The only thing that mattered was that the answers and questions sounded "human". This is the so-called ELIZA effect which is used today by many chatbots. Weizenbaum was aghast how serious many people took this relatively simple programme and how they revealed the most intimate things in a dialogue with the programme. And ELIZA was never designed to replace a human therapist.

The input statements and discussions this afternoon will show us how far we have advanced into the age of Artificial Intelligence.

My second proposition is the following:

2. The German Federal Government accepts the challenge: The use of AI should be promoted responsibly and to the benefit of society. If developed correctly, AI will become an important key to growth and prosperity.

Developing AI and controlling its risks – those related to autonomous driving, cancer diagnosis or future production processes – is a key issue for Germany, Europe and the entire world. We will have to understand the technology in order to be successful. Last summer, the Federal Government presented its cornerstones for a Strategy on Artificial Intelligence. On this basis, we want to achieve global leadership in studying, developing and applying AI in Germany. It is our aim to promote the use of AI to the benefit of society.

The Federal Government in its current High-Tech Strategy 2025 has also formulated a special mission on Artificial Intelligence in order to stake our place among the world leaders in research and development.

Another aspect that is being discussed in this context is data protection. I believe that the high level of privacy in the EU need not be a drawback for the development of AI. It provides a standardized legal framework for over 500 million people. We have the choice of either simply using AI applications developed in other countries – mostly countries with a much lower level of data protection – or capitalizing on the development of our own intelligent algorithms and using the single legal framework to set our own – European – requirements. We Europeans could use this as a major USP and turn it into an economic success.

Involvement of the public is essential for the success of political measures. This brings me to my third proposition:

3. The new technology brings about opportunities and risks. That is why we need a broad debate in society on how Artificial Intelligence should be further developed.

AI as a tool can help us in making up for our human weaknesses. Numerous concerns, worries and questions are involved:

  • How much responsibility do we as humans transfer to a machine or a learning algorithm? Should it take decisions on our behalf? Or should it only assist us by preparing decisions and giving advice?
  • Who will take control – individual users with their decisions? Or will control be delegated to an institution the user trusts? What do we need to establish such trust – for example in terms of expertise? Can self-learning algorithms be controlled at all?

Social dialogue is the basis for a responsible use of AI. Against this backdrop, the upcoming Science Year 2019 will specifically focus on Artificial Intelligence. We want to provide information on the current status of research. And above all, we want to discuss the desires, fears and concerns of the people whom it affects.

A complex, intensive dialogue on Artificial Intelligence will strengthen an enlightened society which is aware of its responsibility – fully in line with Joseph Weizenbaum’s thinking. In the context of his research on Artificial Intelligence, Weizenbaum formulated the following guiding principle:

"A society that embraces technology needs great inner strength to avoid not to become too greedy and distracted from its goals."

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The topic of Artificial Intelligence involves some complex questions. Maybe we’ll find some of the answers today – here at the Circle. The Circle brings together a truly exciting group of "natural intelligence".

In conclusion, I would like to address the other part of the title of this Circle, the "Human Genius":

In German literature, there is an entire period which is named after genius, namely the time of "Sturm und Drang", also called "Geniezeit". Poets at the time were considered something special because they could all in principle be geniuses. Shakespeare was a great model – he was considered an ingenious poet and also a genius. Many young authors strived to be like him. This was also the Age of Enlightenment in which the idea of cosmopolitanism – world citizenship – was widespread. This idea is also our guideline today at the Falling Walls Conference: An exchange of ideas between nations and different scientific disciplines will enrich us and lead to new insights. "Human Genius" – Is that what distinguishes the human being from machines?

I now give to floor to Ms Nowotny. Thank you for your attention!