AI Campus at Osnabrück University
Supporting technological change through research and the human touch
The AI Campus at Osnabrück University is the result of several years of profile building in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). It combines the intensively researched but at the same time application-oriented subjects of Computer Science, Cognitive Science, Information Systems and Mathematics research teams, and is supported by two out of the six interdisciplinary profile lines at the University (»Cognition« and »Digital Society«).
Alongside the information technology- and cognitive science-related aspects, the legal, sociological and ethical implications of the increasing use of AI play a key role in the relevant research activities. Currently, approximately 20 professors work on the AI Campus, along with around 80 research associates and fellows. These include four endowed professorships from the relevant field financed by industry and/or the city and district of Osnabrück. Staffing is being increased in the field on a long-term basis by securing funding for additional professorships from the current federal/regional programs for Artificial Intelligence and/or digitalization. For example, the University was extremely successful when it came to the call for tenders for new digitalization professorships by the Federal State of Lower Saxony – in the form of the approval of up to six additional professorships. It is thereby simultaneously consolidating its recognized reputation as a Lower Saxony hotspot in the field of AI.
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The status of the AI Campus at the University is becoming evident in the plans for a new building at the University’s Westerberg site, in which pertinent subjects and institutes are being merged. But at the governance level, too, two well-known computer scientists and cognitive scientists are contributing their expertise, firstly as Vice President in the President’s Cabinet and secondly as a member of the Board of Governors.
One of the current focal themes at the AI Campus relates for example to the cross-linking and integration – in data terms – of machines, processes and key players in agricultural production. Chaired by Osnabrück University and with numerous partners from academia, industry and agricultural enterprises, the intention is, for example, to set up – with this in mind – a »Zukunftslabor Agrar (ZLA)« [Future laboratory for agriculture] as one of six Lower Saxony-based »Future laboratories for Digitalization«; it will be funded with significant resources.
Academic education and advancement of young academics
The second pillar of the AI Campus alongside research is academic education as well as the advancement of young academics. This means, for example, that alongside the preeminent Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD programs in Cognitive Science available at the Institute of Cognitive Science as well as the Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctoral programs in Computer Science, a part-time Master’s course in »Cognitive Computing« is also being offered. The largely international graduates of these programs are very much in demand in times of increasing skill shortages in regional and supra-regional industry which is keen to use AI. Supported by the Federal State of Lower Saxony through the approval of the additional AI professorships, the relevant capacities in terms of university places are being considerably expanded.
Particularly relevant options for academic qualifications for the advancement of young academics are being offered by the German Research Foundation-funded Research Training Groups »Situated Cognition« and »Computational Cognition« for research into human and machine intelligence. Young academics in another Research Training Group deal with research questions on »Acceptance and trust in expanded and virtual working environments«.
DFKI Laboratory, Lower Saxony
Closely linked discipline-wise to the University’s AI Campus is the newly founded DFKI Laboratory, Lower Saxony, of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI). A non-university research institution with branches in both, Osnabrück and Oldenburg, its research focuses particularly on the expanded perception of complex environments or situations. For this purpose, the two DFKI work groups at the Osnabrück site are being expanded in the next few years to a total of at least 40 scientists. In 2021, the Osnabrück branch of the DFKI will move into a historic building that has been specially renovated for this purpose, namely the centrally located, former »roundhouse«. The plan is also to house startups interested in AI alongside research projects connected to the subject in a futuristic setting. The close thematic link between the AI Campus and the DFKI Laboratory, Lower Saxony is also reflected in the fact that both Osnabrück work group leaders research and teach as professors at Osnabrück University. Other relevant work groups are planned in connection with the expansion of the DFKI Laboratory, Lower Saxony at the Osnabrück site.
If data is the oil of the 21st century, then AI is the engine that can use this fuel. Together, they form the ‘power source’ for digitalization.
Transfer of research results
While the two institutions, »AI Campus« of Osnabrück University and the »DFKI Laboratory, Lower Saxony«, are primarily characterized by highly competitive academic achievements, other »AI buildings« at the Osnabrück site are dedicated to the transfer of research results into practice. Specifically, we are talking about the research departments of regional and supra-regional medium-sized companies that are in close proximity to the AI Campus. Here it was recognized early on how much value added chains can be improved through the use of AI and also how much the outstandingly well-trained graduates from the relevant Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhD and doctoral programs are highly welcomed by these companies. On the basis of the »research hubs« already set up by companies on site and dedicated to the topic of AI, here too, it is realistic to assume that staff numbers in terms of AI experts will be similar to those at the AI Campus and DFKI Laboratory.
In summary, alongside the large number of AI scientists, it is the strong interdependency between the AI Campus, the DFKI Laboratory and AI research departments of companies which contributes significantly to the strengthening of this location for business and science. This gives Osnabrück the prospect of becoming one of Germany’s »AI capitals«. At the same time, the DFKI Laboratory, Lower Saxony as a non-university research institution and the industry which is keen on AI complement the AI Campus of the University and round off the comprehensive AI expertise at the Osnabrück site.
For the University, focusing on the key area of »Artificial Intelligence« has produced not only excellent prospects for research and the advancement of young academics, but also gives answers to the questions which in the next decades will be of huge scientific, technological and social relevance.
AI Campus and DFKI Laboratory, Lower Saxony: a summary
Profile lines relevant to AI
Electronic patient files or self-driving vehicles: these are just two of several practical examples which play a part in the Digital Society – Innovation – Regulation profile line. Over and above this, the scope of this innovative research association covers topics such as Connected Home, Smart Health Services, Crowdsourcing, Usability and Know-How Protection. At the heart of the research in theCognition: Humans – Technology – Interaction profile line are new AI methods along with the use of »big data« to improve societal and social structures. Examples of this are: the analysis of social networks to obtain data for predicting epidemics, development of smart e-learning systems and social aspects of AI in the field of autonomous driving. Added to these are the social, ethical and also legal implications accompanying increasing digitalization and the use of AI.
Research Training Groups in AI
The excellence in cognition research in Osnabrück is demonstrated among other things by the existence of – currently two – German Research Foundation-funded Research Training Groups (Computational Cognition and Situated Cognition). The Computational Cognition Research Training Group, for example, is designed to contribute towards a better understanding of intelligence in people and machines. At the center of this is the understanding of the connections between lower and higher cognitive planes; the Research Training Group thus brings together Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence. A further Research Training Group, financed by the university and based at the Institute of Information Systems, is concerned with interdisciplinary research into acceptance and trust in augmented and virtual work environments – on the way to Industry 4.0, knowledge about this is extremely important.
Degree programs with connections to AI
The Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD programs in Cognitive Science primarily deal with the scientific study of brain and mind. The corresponding Bachelor’s and Master’s programs and doctoral study opportunities in Computer Science also offer AI as a focal area of study. A new addition is the part-time Master’s program inCognitive Computing, which is all about simulating human thought processes with the aid of Artificial Intelligence. At the Institute of Computer Science there is also an innovative course option in the form of the Bachelor’s program »Embedded Software systems«, which deals in particular with the interplay of computer systems and surrounding technical systems. These study programs likewise incorporate a wide discussion of the ethical and social dimensions of digitalization.
DFKI Laboratory, Lower Saxony
How can autonomous, mobile robots operate in a target-oriented, safe manner around people? And how can the technology developed for this be transferred to areas of application such as agricultural engineering or intralogistics? Answers to these and other questions belong to the research domain of the Osnabrück branch »Plan-based robot control« – in existence since 2011 – of the Bremen Robotics Innovation Center (RIC) of the DFKI. This research group is continuing its work in the DFKI Laboratory, Lower Saxony, newly founded in 2019, with branches in Osnabrück and Oldenburg. Both research and development focus on the topic of »Advanced Perception«, and are directed primarily at medium-sized companies. Alongside the existing group »Plan-based robot control«, there is also the Osnabrück-based group »Smart Enterprise Engineering«. The purpose of this group is to systematically develop innovation potential, such as Industry 4.0 and Smart Services, and transform this into digital training and professional development scenarios for companies.
Dr. Oliver Schmidt
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