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Materials in a digitalized world

Last year, two talks at Empa in particular got me thinking about societal and technological developments. Firstly, Gerd Folkers, President of the Swiss Science and Innovation Council, pointed out that the number of researchers and their currency, the number of publications, has multiplied in recent years and that, in many areas, research has moved away from purely fundamental questions and towards economically exploitable knowledge. What does this mean for our scientists?  They should always focus on the goal of any research: to push the boundaries of knowledge. They will only succeed if they are given enough leeway for creative thinking and analysis, and if they do not allow themselves to be seduced, by the globalized competition, into sprucing up their résumés with “hyped-up” publications.

Then there was Alessandro Curioni, Director of the IBM  Research Center in Rüschlikon, who showcased the latest developments in cognitive computing, i.e., computer systems that,  like our brains, are capable of gathering, evaluating and learning  from unstructured data, and of supplying it in a summarized or  even processed form. For instance, it is possible to develop new alloys that can be optimized by combining different classes of materials. However, this also carries the danger of computers rendering humans (and researchers) obsolete for certain tasks as they are simply capable to performing these much more effectively.

It is particularly interesting to combine the messages of both presentations. The human brain is no longer able to process the enormous amount of data generated in today’s research (hundreds of thousands of papers are published every year in materials science alone). A computer modelled on human thought patterns can help researchers in this respect and thus give them the freedom to venture into unchartered territory and get creative with their ideas as opposed to merely publishing raw data that will sell well as the research topic is currently “hot”.

Cognitive computing, however, is just one part of the rapidly accelerating digitalization that is also in full swing at Empa. We are investing more and more in computer simulations and in the modelling of scientific questions. At the Coating Competence Center (CCC) and the Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CAM), where new materials are produced for additive manufacturing, the future of the manufacturing process is virtually being anticipated – and it is largely digital, whether it be in the planning phase, in product design, quality assurance or in optimizing the distribution channels. Moreover, we are working on linking up our two demonstrators, NEST and move, with a third one, ehub (short for Energy Hub), in terms of energy and in order to control them in a smart way.

All of Empa’s research platforms – NEST, move, ehub, CCC and CAM – are open for projects in the field of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0. Together with our partners from industry and research, we would like to create an ecosystem for open innovation. The technological transformation that has been markedly accelerated by digitalization affects us all, which is why we need to shape and steer it together – so Switzerland can benefit from it in the best possible way.

Prof. Dr. Gian-Luca Bona

Further information

Appendix 2016: Awards, Publications, Conferences, Teaching Activities, PhD Theses

Financial Statements 2016 (in German)