What is the AI ​​brain drain

Against brain drain: Tübingen wants to become a center for AI research

Eric Schulz's résumé can be intimidating. The 33-year-old studied psychology, cognitive and decision sciences, statistics and computer science and received his doctorate. He lived in Berlin, London and Boston, and did research at Oxford and Harvard Universities. At the beginning of the year he swapped the shimmering metropolises and glamorous names for the Swabian Neckar valley. Now the neuroscientist raves about the hiking environment and medieval buildings. "Tübingen is a beautiful city," he says of his new adopted home.

But Schulz is supposed to work there above all - and not alone. In 2016, Baden-Württemberg founded the "Cyber ​​Valley" in Tübingen with academic and industrial partners and created an ecosystem of interlinked institutes. The research association sees itself as a playground for young hopes and the international elite of scientists. With this, too, the country wants to counteract the "brain drain" - the emigration of highly qualified people.

AI center in Tübingen

Schulz convinced the Tübingen spirit of optimism. Since January he has been a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics there. Here he is supposed to set up an interdisciplinary team that examines the mathematical principles of intelligence.

In collaboration with scientists from Berlin, he analyzes how children solve tasks with building blocks. Algorithms should be built from the play behavior of the little ones and robots fed with them one day - the adults could, for example, lend a hand in the kitchen. "We want robots that can solve a wide variety of tasks," says Schulz, describing his goal. Researchers from China, Canada and India work in his team.

According to the Federal Institute for Population Research, the majority of those who emigrate from Germany every year are academics - but they do not necessarily also work as scientists. According to Jan Kercher, Germany does not have a general brain drain problem. The expert from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) says that the Federal Republic benefits from the mobility of scientists. Accordingly, scientists who immigrated to Germany publish more successfully than is the case in some neighboring countries or the USA and Canada. That is, they are cited more often.

In research areas in which Germany is not yet among the world's best, things look a little different - the area of ​​artificial intelligence (AI) is probably one of them, says Kercher. "There it is unfortunately difficult to get people to return home because there are currently not enough attractive positions in these research areas in Germany where you can continue research at a similar level as in other countries." But these are only assumptions, there are no hard data.

From Harvard to Tübingen

From the world-famous Harvard on the US east coast to Tübingen? Eric Schulz also had a little doubt. "At first I was a little afraid that it might not be possible to recruit the top scientists here," he says. The fact that he applied for Tübingen instead of staying in the USA was also due to a prominent name in the science scene: Peter Dayan. Schulz considers him one of the best neuroscientists in the world: "When I heard that Peter Dayan was going to Tübingen, I was as happy as if Germany had won the World Cup."

The British mathematician Dayan conducts research at the interface between neuroscience, medicine and machine learning. He is currently concerned with how people make decisions with the help of information sources and memories. Dayan also attracted the Max Planck Society (MPG) to Tübingen. Since 2018 he has been director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. In addition to several awards, in 2020 he received one of the renowned Humboldt Professorships in the field of artificial intelligence, Germany's most highly endowed research award.

"Cyber ​​Valley": Attractive for researchers

The MPG maintains 80 Max Planck Institutes nationwide. The research organization is committed to basic research and, according to Dayan, offers reliable funding - for a growing number of foreign scientists it is therefore attractive to come to Germany and work for the MPG.

In addition to the Fraunhofer Society, Leibniz Association and Helmholtz Association, the MPG is one of the four largest German non-university research institutions. According to the DAAD, the proportion of foreign academic staff is rising steadily in almost all of them; in the MPG it was 45.9 percent in 2017.

Tübingen is a special case. The city of 90,000 inhabitants between Schönbuch and the Swabian Alb has been popular for centuries, especially for aesthetic geniuses. Here Holderlin wrote, here Hegel philosophized. In the future, the city is to develop global radiance in a different area, with the "Cyber ​​Valley", a center for AI research. In addition to the state, the universities of Stuttgart and Tübingen and the MPG, companies such as Bosch and Daimler as well as Amazon are also involved.

"Excellent work has been done here both in creating an academic infrastructure and in attracting companies," says Dayan. In his estimation, however, the German education system, which is completely different from that of the USA or Great Britain, could still be a disadvantage in the competition for top international graduates. Eric Schulz complains about a more pronounced bureaucracy compared to the USA. His institute is working to change that.


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