“Using AI, we will develop solutions that we couldn’t achieve with conventional methods.”

16.5.2019 | AI series: Interview with Prof. Albert Heuberger and Prof. Bernhard Grill, the Directors of Fraunhofer IIS

What can artificial intelligence really do? What are its limits? Everyone is talking about AI and many questions are still awaiting answers. As an institute for applied research, Fraunhofer IIS deals with this very issue: How can the theoretical possibilities of AI be translated into practical applications? How and for what purpose do we use AI to benefit society? What about data security? And how will people and machines interact in the future? We spoke about these issues with the institute’s directors, Albert Heuberger and Bernhard Grill.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is making its way from science into its first industrial applications. Why is Fraunhofer IIS using AI?


Albert Heuberger: We don’t engage with AI as an end in itself; rather, we see it as a tool for solving real problems in application projects for our customers. We’re not interested in building up some kind of abstract AI expertise, but in using AI strategically and pragmatically as a powerful tool – wherever it is suitable and effective.

Bernhard Grill: We’ve already identified numerous applications and issues where traditional approaches are reaching their limits, but where AI methods have delivered very promising results; one good example is signal processing. As such, the starting point of our deliberations is the following question: Where do problems exist that traditional methods can’t solve, and where can AI be of help?


What does this mean for the development of technologies for industry?


Bernhard Grill: Fraunhofer IIS supplies certain components that will be needed for new machines – from self-driving cars and industrial robots for repair tasks to social robots providing household assistance or doing care work. It will be vitally important for German industry to have ready access to these components. Of these, the most important are smart sensors that capture and pre-process data and then transmit only the necessary information, thus avoiding the accumulation of unnecessary data right from the start.

Albert Heuberger: Conceivably, we could have intelligent systems that operate on very small, energy-saving platforms. For our customers, this means that systems will be not only much more available but also smaller, cheaper, and more adaptable.


Speaking of sensors, cognitive sensor technology is one of the big flagship topics at Fraunhofer IIS. How exactly are you linking it with AI?


Albert Heuberger: Our focus is very much on AI-enabled intelligent cognitive sensors that can be fitted in turn into larger, autonomous, complex technical systems. And cognitive sensor technology means that an image sensor not only records lines and pixels, but also intelligently evaluates this image information – for example, so it recognizes and interprets an image’s content. This principle can also be transferred to many other sensors, such as voice and positioning sensors. We will certainly not be building complete systems, such as an autonomous maintenance robot or a self-driving car. But by virtue of the important components we’ll be supplying, we’ll be playing our part in ensuring that these systems are equipped with enhanced capabilities such as better positioning sensors and better signal processing, so that they can communicate better and are easier to operate through features such as voice interfaces. Accordingly, we’re focusing on our strengths. We’re trying to make the technologies in which we have expertise even better, and we’re focusing on areas in which we are strong.


What examples can you give?


Bernhard Grill: We’ve reached world class level in many areas. We will lead with our core competencies and know-how by developing solutions for specific industrial problems that can’t be achieved by traditional means.

Today’s voice assistants are far from being actually intelligent. They’re trained for individual applications, but have no real understanding of language. In the future, once people are able to talk to their devices and tell them what they need, that will revolutionize operation. That’s precisely what we’re working on in our guiding topic of Audio and Media Technologies.

Albert Heuberger: In the field of materials testing systems, for example, our know-how resides in classical image processing and analysis. We use AI methods like machine learning for purposes such as automatically finding errors and configuring industrial plants in an autonomous and intelligent manner. AI enables us to substantially increase the capabilities we offer and it lets us build systems that detect much better and more precisely and that intuitively do what is needed. This is a vision of the future that challenges and inspires us.


Prof. Albert Heuberger, director of Fraunhofer IIS
© Fraunhofer IIS/Peter Roggenthin
Prof. Albert Heuberger: "We see AI as a tool for solving real problems."
Dr. Bernhard Grill, director of Fraunhofer IIS
© Fraunhofer IIS/Peter Roggenthin
Dr. Bernhard Grill: "Where do problems exist that traditional methods can’t solve, and where can AI be of help?"

To what extent does AI represent a historical turning point for Fraunhofer IIS?


Bernhard Grill: For us, the application of AI methods is the logical continuation of the development of microelectronics. Nowadays, microprocessors are integrated into even the smallest of everyday devices. With the use of AI, these devices and machines will become even more flexible and more versatile in their usability for new applications than today. They will be able to handle more complex tasks locally, without having to fall back on central high-performance computers. This means we will have the machines and the data to trigger innovations that are just as large as those that kick-started digital signal processing and microelectronics around 50 years ago. We have the capabilities to create something new with AI and we’re determined to be in on the act.

Albert Heuberger: AI means a new class of tools that are able to perform much more complex tasks. This will elevate microelectronics – a field we’ve been very successfully engaged in for years – to a whole new plane. So AI is a perfect fit for our mission to build microelectronics and sensor technology applications. As such, it’s a logical consequence of our previous activities; we must engage with these new tools and get the best use out of them in our research.


However, there are also risks associated with the use of AI. How is Fraunhofer IIS meeting its responsibilities in this regard?


Bernhard Grill: People are always afraid of machines taking too much work away from humans, but it really makes sense in many cases. The operation of devices by voice is a good example. Or when machines make driving safer. Machines do not get drunk or overtired, and they’re not prone to daydreaming. This will reduce the number of accidents, which is a huge step forward. It will be possible to prevent certain scenarios – in situations where people make typical “human” errors. The machines will make mistakes, too, but far fewer.

Albert Heuberger: We’re working on making such machines trustworthy. Take the topic of facial recognition, for example: When I look into a camera that I know uses facial recognition, then the question of privacy arises. We employ the principle of “privacy by design,” which means we use technical mechanisms such as encryption, or even no transmission at all of image data, so that users can be reassured that only certain characteristics are extracted from the data. So we ask ourselves the question: What should I allow the machine to evaluate?

The Bavarian state government has decided to establish a new center of excellence for artificial machine intelligence. What role will Fraunhofer IIS play in this enterprise?


Albert Heuberger: AI is also an important topic for Bavaria going forward. It is very heartening that the state government is taking the initiative and wants to facilitate progress in this topic by creating a suitable environment and good conditions. We see ourselves as part of this center of excellence. Our role is to use AI methods to create systems that benefit customers.


In your personal view, what does the future look like?


Bernhard Grill: Machines have always made people’s lives easier and taken over unpleasant chores. For example, nobody today would want to be without a washing machine. So for me, it’s all about building machines that make people’s lives even easier or make things possible that they could never achieve without machines. I’d like to make a decisive contribution to this goal.

Albert Heuberger: The future is machines that adapt to their users’ needs and that users can trust. That’s the next stage: We consider not only whether a machine can do something, but whether the user actually wants it to.


Interview by Ilona Hörath.



Prof. Albert Heuberger, Dr. Bernhard Grill, directors of Fraunhofer IIS
© Fraunhofer IIS/Peter Roggenthin
Prof. Albert Heuberger and Dr. Bernhard Grill want to advance AI technologies at Fraunhofer IIS in such a way that they benefit industry and users.


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