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Helmholtz to base new AI flagship unit in Munich to strengthen its Germany-wide research network

In today’s world, new technologies and modern approaches to research generate huge mountains of data – obtained from space, climate research and the human body. Thanks to Artificial intelligence (AI), it is now possible to unearth a treasure trove of knowledge from these data mountains and link it together. Germany’s largest research organization, the Helmholtz Association, is undertaking a massive expansion of its current applied AI capabilities. The central element will be the Helmholtz Artificial Intelligence Cooperation Unit (HAICU), which will receive 11.4 million euros in annual research funding and will be based at the Helmholtz Zentrum München.

Helmholtz Artificial Intelligence Cooperation Unit (HAICU). © amiak/ Fotolia.com (modified)

This Germany-wide research platform will be headed by Prof. Fabian Theis, Director of the Institute of Computational Biology (ICB), Helmholtz Zentrum München and Professor of Mathematical Modeling of Biological Systems, Technical University of Munich (TUM), who specializes in handling complex and heterogeneous data and, above all, large data sets. “The proverbial buzzword on everyone’s lips is big data, although ‘bigger’ per se doesn’t necessarily mean better,” the 42-year-old mathematician explains. “Bigger only leads to success when AI gets smarter with every new data point because then you can sift through and combine the data with increasing efficiency. And that’s precisely what we’re working on.”

When Theis says ‘we’ he means the team at the HAICU unit based in Munich. In future, a further five departments will be set up here to conduct top-level research on applied AI. In addition, a group of experts will be recruited as AI consultants to help design and drive forward complex research projects based on AI methods. Ultimately, their task is to tailor applications to a wide range of issues emerging from the various Helmholtz centers and to implement them in situ. “AI is often shrouded in mystery and mystique, and is reserved exclusively for experts. Our aim is to democratize access to AI and promote its use within the Helmholtz Association,” Theis explains.

HAICU will operate as an independent unit. Over the past 18 months the structure for the prototype has been developed by specialists at the ‘Helmholtz Incubator for Information & Data Science’ – a think tank for AI solutions and machine learning within the Helmholtz Association. Five local units for specific areas of research at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, the Jülich Research Center, the Helmholtz Zentrum Geesthacht, the Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf and the German Aerospace Center will be networked with the Munich scientists under the direction of Fabian Theis at the HAICU base.

Satellites, supercomputers or stem cells – data is ready and waiting everywhere 

The Helmholtz Association is in an excellent starting position to develop applied AI. For example, it already operates large research infrastructures for nuclear and particle physics, supercomputers and satellite missions, and handles complex stem cell simulations. The idea is that HAICU will use all this data and become the key catalyst for becoming a leading global expert in the field of applied AI and, conversely, contribute to research once again. “The Helmholtz Association already has access to a wealth of big data that is growing exponentially,” says Helmholtz President Prof. Otmar D. Wiestler. “At all its locations, and in all the individual disciplines it boasts world-leading approaches and outstanding methodological expertise. But it is only through their interaction that unforeseen possibilities arise. Helmholtz provides the know-how and the manpower to exploit these synergies. As a result, Helmholtz centers will now become a sought-after cooperation partner for industry, also in the field of Artificial intelligence, and the resulting spin-offs will strengthen the German economy as a whole.”

“HAICU and above all its base here at the Helmholtz Zentrum München will further reinforce Munich’s position as the location for future-oriented top-level research, and will also consolidate and intensify our collaborative partnerships with industry as well as with the two universities here in Munich – TUM and LMU –notes Prof. Matthias H. Tschöp, CEO of Helmholtz Zentrum München. “And, of course, wide-reaching synergies exist in the fields of informatics, robotics and machine learning, especially with Munich’s Technical University. We are delighted, and we see the funding as recognition of the activities we have already initiated in the field of Artificial intelligence, which is a key technology, and its application in biomedicine. Both Helmholtz President Otmar Wiestler and the Minister President of Bavaria, Markus Söder, regard artificial intelligence as central to future-oriented research. Thanks to this funding and the outstanding scientific expertise available at the centers, the Helmholtz Association will underline Germany’s research at world class level.”

Further Information

HAICU website

As German Research Center for Environmental Health, Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus, allergies and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,500 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 19 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members. 

The Technical University of Munich (TUM) is one of Europe’s leading research universities, with around 550 professors, 41,000 students, and 10,000 academic and non-academic staff. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural sciences, life sciences and medicine, combined with economic and social sciences. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and creates value for society. In that it profits from having strong partners in science and industry. It is represented worldwide with the TUM Asia campus in Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Cairo, Mumbai, San Francisco, and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel, Carl von Linde, and Rudolf Mößbauer have done research at TUM. In 2006 and 2012 it won recognition as a German "Excellence University." In international rankings, TUM regularly places among the best universities in Germany.

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