Bernhard Schölkopf – Prizewinner 2019

The German physicist, mathematician and computer scientist Bernhard Schölkopf received the Körber European Science Prize, endowed with one million euros. He has developed mathematical methods that have made a significant contribution to helping artificial intelligence (AI) reach its most recent heights. Schölkopf and his team are investigating algorithms with which computer programs can react flexibly to situations, for example for driverless cars. He has established central methods for machine learning from which applications in biology, medicine, economics, social sciences and numerous other fields can benefit.

Schölkopf is the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen and co-founder of the "Cyber Valley", a centre of excellence that aims to help Germany attain a leading position in international AI competition.

The Körber European Science Prize 2019 was presented to Bernhard Schölkopf on 13 September in the Great Festival Hall of Hamburg City Hall.

Data is the fuel

The methods he has developed are used in medical image processing, gene identification, climate research and robotics. At the presentation ceremony of the Körber European Science Prize in Hamburg's City Hall, First Mayor Peter Tschentscher was visibly impressed by what the research by this year's prize winner Bernhard Schölkopf has already made possible. He remarked that the prospects for the rapidly developing scientific area of artificial intelligence (AI), in which Schölkopf plays a leading role for Europe, also point to many other possible applications: storing regenerative electricity more effectively, curing diseases using new therapies and making our cities more mobile, climate-friendly and liveable with intelligent traffic concepts.

To mark the 60th anniversary of the Körber Foundation, the prize money for the Körber Prize has been increased to one million euros, making it one of the most highly endowed research prizes in the world, Tschentscher continued. Not only does it honour a very special scientific success, it also serves as an incentive and encouragement for young scientists to conduct excellent and innovative research. Tschentscher emphasised that Hamburg can also hold its own in the international scientific ranking by referring to the recent recognition of Hamburg University as a university of excellence.

In his welcoming address, Lothar Dittmer, Chairman of the Executive Board of the Körber Foundation, emphasised that artificial intelligence can already do a lot today in conjunction with Big Data, but also pointed out the reservations that prevail at the same time: "It fuels hopes and awakens fears." People's ideas range from a new stage of evolution to intelligent supercomputers taking over power. But we have every reason to be digital optimists, Dittmer continued. "Because we gain more than we lose with the new technologies. And because in Europe we fortunately live in societies where we can have a say in the conditions under which the new technologies are to be used". For Kurt Körber, the awarding of the prize was always about "making a significant contribution to improving living conditions on our planet". And perhaps this is actually possible with AI.

But the current AI debate shows that these reservations have not yet been dispelled. Dittmer stressed that a clear societal "compass" was necessary to create confidence in these new technologies. The decisive factor is not the technology itself, but how it is used. Replacing humans with machines is rejected, while using nursing robots to relieve nursing personnel in order to provide more human attention is welcomed. The focus is clearly on the benefit for people. In addition to a compass, the use of AI also requires an open and transparent society. It is astounding to see that the combination of both strengthens confidence in new technologies enormously.

But the fuel for this artificial intelligence is data, stressed journalist Ranga Yogeshwar in an interview with Schölkopf, pointing to a central problem of feeding data into the AI engine. Of course, one must always weigh data protection against general benefit, said Schölkopf. Due to our history we are already more sensitised than other states to the liberality of data. But a great deal of data is required to ensure that information-processing systems can recognise patterns and ultimately learn. So far, there have been enough difficulties with this correlative process. For example, a cow standing in a meadow is recognised as such, but not when it is standing on a beach. The step from correlation to causality, the special ability of human thought, has not yet been achieved with AI. But we have already identified where it is still missing, said Schölkopf. Nevertheless, he advocated the supportive use of AI systems that have already proven their usefulness for certain tasks – for example in medicine.

The use of large volumes of data for scientific purposes also requires international cooperation. Martin Stratmann, Chairman of the Körber Prize Trustee Committee, also sees a danger for scientific development in the current tendencies towards isolation that can be observed worldwide. Science speaks a common language and networking is necessary for its progress. He stressed that the creation of barriers in this field would ultimately harm humanity as such. Although Europe is an El Dorado for free thinking, a certain fear of releasing data can still be observed here as well. In order to create more trust, ethical principles are indispensable for the use of AI. Then it would also be possible to convince sceptics of the benefits of using artificial intelligence. And for Chairman of the Executive Board Lothar Dittmer, there is no doubt that anyone who wants to make the world a better place needs artificial intelligence and digitisation.

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Presentation of the prize

Photos of the presentation of the Körber European Science Prize 2019 to Bernhard Schölkopf in the Great Festival Hall of Hamburg City Hall, 13 September 2019.

These photos are free to use in the context of news coverage with the credit Körber-Stiftung/David Ausserhofer.

Prof. Dr. Martin Stratmann, Prof. Dr. Bernhard Schölkopf, Dr. Lothar Dittmer (from left)
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Prof. Dr. Bernhard Schölkopf, Ranga Yogeshwar (from left)
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Presentation of the Körber Prize in the Hamburg City Hall, 13 September 2019
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Prof. Dr. Martin Stratmann, Prof. Dr. Bernhard Schölkopf, Dr. Peter Tschentscher, Dr. Lothar Dittmer (from left)
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Curriculum Vitae Bernhard Schölkopf

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press release, 26.06.2019

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The following photos are free to use in the context of news coverage with the credit Körber-Stiftung/Friedrun Reinhold.

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