Renewed success for Saarland University
The decision is expected to bring in around 45 million euros in research funding to the region, offering work opportunities for large numbers of highly qualified scientists. In addition to Saarland University, other institutions participating in the Cluster of Excellence and the Graduate School are the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems and the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence. One of the key areas of research for Saarbrücken's computer scientists is concerned with computer systems capable of communicating naturally with users.
The research being conducted at Saarland University's Cluster of Excellence is aimed at understanding the fundamental principles of computer systems that can respond autonomously to their environment and process language, images and gestures. "Humans are able to use their eyes, ears and their sense of touch to rapidly gather information about their surroundings. However, for a computer to be able to react appropriately to its environment, it first has to be 'taught' to correctly interpret its surroundings for purposes of a specific application. We call this complex interplay between man and machine 'multimodal interaction'. It requires not only a lot of computing power, but also a lot of very smart algorithms," explains Hans-Peter Seidel, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Informatics and Scientific Coordinator of the Cluster of Excellence in Saarbrücken. More than a hundred researchers, computer scientists and computer linguists from Saarland University and the computer and informatics research institutes on campus are cooperating closely within the Cluster on issues such as intelligent strategies for organizing, understanding and searching vast quantities of data. This work is helping to improve search engines and to enable meaningful information to be extracted from a variety of sources, such as images and videos. "Medical practitioners and biologists also profit from our work, as fast computer algorithms are enabling them to analyse complex cellular processes or the human genome," says Seidel.
"The relevance of our research today is far greater than we could ever have imagined when the Cluster of Excellence started five years ago. The amounts of data being transferred on websites such as YouTube, Flickr or Facebook are simply enormous. Millions of pictures, videos and texts can now be accessed via smartphones anytime and anywhere, opening up entirely new applications," points out Professor Seidel. However, as technical capabilities have advanced, so too have user expectations of, for instance, the quality of mobile data transmissions or 3D representations of virtual environments. Here, too, the Cluster of Excellence in Saarbrücken is actively engaged in research. "To enable people to move freely through three-dimensional worlds, computer graphics experts in Saarbrücken have developed a means of embedding and controlling lifelike avatars within video scenes," says Hans-Peter Seidel. In future, a simple browser add-on will allow anyone to include 3D content on their web pages. This opens up the possibility of a whole range of new applications for online shops, for museums or for research networks within the pharmaceutical industry.
"Language is a critical factor in communicating naturally with computer systems. Computer linguists and computer scientists are working together in the Cluster of Excellence on expressive avatars that can combine spoken language with realistic eye movements and gestures to enhance communication. The results of this work will not only improve computer games; industrial companies will also be able to use avatars in training videos designed, for instance, to brief and train new personnel who will be working with complex industrial plants. And the results of our research are also important for developing domestic robots to be used to assist the elderly," explains Seidel. A key aspect of practically all applications is data security and user privacy. Important work in this field is being driven by the collaborative research between the Cluster of Excellence and the recently established Centre for IT-Security, Privacy and Accountability (CISPA) in Saarbrücken.
Both CISPA and the Intel Visual Computing Institute at Saarland University were set up on the Saarbrücken campus during the first phase of funding of the Cluster of Excellence. "This proves that excellent surroundings stimulate the creation of new institutes and help to draw scientists from around the world. The Excellence Initiative wanted to create beacons within the research landscape whose lights were bright enough to be recognized internationally. And this objective has been fully realized in Saarland," affirms Saarland state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
The President of Saarland University, Volker Linneweber, points out that there has been a long tradition of close cooperation between the university and the computer science research institutes in Saarbrücken. "The Cluster of Excellence has, however, given an enormous impetus to this collaboration. The research results are of value not only in the field of informatics, but also in many other disciplines such as linguistics, medicine and biology. This work is therefore a very significant and very visible contribution to raising awareness of the region," explains Linneweber.
According to Hans-Peter Seidel, the key to the success of Saarland University's Cluster of Excellence lies in its structure, which is unique in Germany. "We have given twenty young scientists the opportunity to establish and lead their own independent research groups. They have selected their own research fields, but they also receive support from experienced scientists in Saarbrücken," explains Seidel. Some of the funding has also been used to set up research projects in which these young researchers are collaborating with other local scientists, who have also injected their own research grants and funding into the projects. This has attracted even more doctoral and post-graduate researchers from around the world to work on topics broadly connected to the work of the Cluster of Excellence.
"Over the last five years, 54 of the young researchers within the Cluster of Excellence have been offered professorships or junior professorships in Germany or abroad, with fifteen of these offers of professorial positions going to the heads of independent junior research groups within the Cluster of Excellence," says Hans-Peter Seidel. The conceptual structure that has proved so effective for the Cluster will be retained going into the new phase of funding, with financing available for another twenty independent junior research groups with around a hundred young researchers. A total of about 37 million euros have been awarded for the Cluster of Excellence. The participating institutions also plan to use their own funds to set up a further ten research groups that will also be working on Cluster topics.