“We Have to Develop a Sense for Vagueness”

A conversation with CITEC Coordinator Prof. Dr. Helge Ritter

Professor Dr. Helge Ritter, Coordinator of the Cluster of Excellence CITEC, was a guest on Bielefeld’s Campus Radio 97.9. Radio host Andreas Hermwille spoke with Ritter for a half an hour, looking back on the path CITEC has taken during the past ten years. What is it like to draft a high-stakes proposal? And what are the topics that CITEC researchers want to work on in the future?

Prof. Dr. Helge Ritter and the robot head Flobi “Thinking technology – technology that understands something about people and the world,” Prof. Dr. Helge summarized the goal of research at the Cluster of Excellence CITEC as such in his radio interview. Technology that helps people live self-determined lives, such as the elderly, the handicapped, or those with chronic illnesses. One example of this is a virtual assistant who helps people organize their day. Since 2011, the Cluster of Excellence has been working together with the v. Bodelschwingh Bethel Foundation as strategic partners. Ritter sees a special task facing this partnership: “We have to develop a sense for vagueness,” he says. “People don’t always express themselves clearly – context is key. The technical systems we develop have to be able to adapt to situations of limited specificity, making them ready for day-to-day use.”

Interdisciplinary cooperation is an essential feature of CITEC’s work. Researchers from the fields of biology, computer science, linguistics, mathematics, psychology, and sports science work together on thinking technology. “I am especially interested in manual intelligence,” says Ritter. “We have created robot hands with fingers capable of grasping objects in a sensitive way. Because we ourselves grasp so well, we only first comprehend the complexity of this action when it comes to transferring this ability to a robot hand. This requires a lot of basic research, and we depend on interdisciplinary cooperation for this.” It is often a long road. “The great things are the ones that didn’t work the first hundred times. The tough nuts are the most exciting to crack. One breakthrough success was when we were able to extend the sense of touch to the hands in full.”

CITEC’s second funding phase ran through the end of October 2017. Currently, the Cluster is receiving interim funding through the end of 2018. In February of this year, Bielefeld University submitted its main application to the Excellence Strategy of the federal and state governments of Germany for a new cluster that builds upon the research of the Cluster of Excellence CITEC. In the interview, Helge Ritter commented on this, saying “We have developed a proposal that we find to be very convincing. The positive feedback from the first round of evaluation strengthened our resolve. In this current final round, we have to stay the course.” The challenge of individualizing and intersubjectively developing the technology is the challenge for the topics that have been included in this proposal. “This is an ambitious goal – one we hopefully will be able to work on starting next year,” says Helge Ritter.

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