"Basic research can prevent subjugation of people by machines" | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

In a presentation at FAPESP, German researcher Frank Allgöwer spoke about how cybernetic engineering and human sciences can contribute to a better understanding and control of complex dynamic systems in the future (photo: Phelipe Janning/Agência FAPESP)

"Basic research can prevent subjugation of people by machines"

January 04, 2017

By Karina Toledo  |  Agência FAPESP – Humanity is building ever more complex dynamic systems—from self-driving cars to smart plants and smart cities—that form interacting networks with a high degree of automation and autonomy.

In tomorrow’s interconnected world, humans will tend to be mere users of these complex dynamic systems rather than the force that controls them. Control mechanisms will therefore be needed to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Such mechanisms can be developed only through investment in basic research, especially in the field of cybernetic engineering.

This vision was expounded upon on December 1 by Frank Allgöwer, Head of the Institute for Systems Theory & Automatic Control at the University of Stuttgart, Germany, in a lecture delivered at FAPESP’s headquarters in São Paulo, Brazil.

“We don’t yet understand very well how these systems work, how they interact and organize themselves, but even so we’re building them. Although I personally believe the positive effects will outweigh the negative ones, I hesitate to say we should speed up our technological development,” Allgöwer said. “In my view this is the time to make basic research catch up with the technological innovations that are materializing, so that we can really understand what’s happening.”

According to Allgöwer, growing autonomy and networks are the key features of today’s technological innovations, and cybernetic engineering is the basic science that lies at the core of this process because it enables us, through mathematical methods and theorems, to predict how these complex systems will function and to influence their behavior.

“Controlling a dynamic system, such as a self-driving, or autonomous, car, is a tough task and far from trivial, so it requires a good theoretical foundation. But that’s not all. In the future there will be many autonomous vehicles and they’ll have to organize themselves and talk to each other so as to optimize traffic, save energy and time, and avoid accidents. This network will have to be operated by cybernetic controllers because no human can react fast enough to manage such a complex network on which so many lives depend,” he said.

Power will not be generated almost entirely by huge central power plants in the future, according to Allgöwer, but rather by small decentralized units, such as wind farms and solar generators. These will have to be interconnected and will have to be organized so as to send power to where it is needed, to avoid failures, and to prevent outages.

In factories, the assembly lines introduced by the second industrial revolution are giving way to networked manufacturing cells. “Industry 4.0 means that if a robot in a given cell breaks down or is overloaded, another robot takes over,” Allgöwer said. “Goods can be made more cheaply and efficiently in this interconnected system.”

For Allgöwer, the growing autonomy of dynamic systems is positive in principle. It should benefit the economy, boosting the means of production, enhancing quality of life and making the use of resources more efficient so that human activities can become more sustainable. However, a number of risks or threats may be associated with this revolution.

“The systems we’re talking about are so complex that humans can’t keep up with everything that’s happening. Robots will have all the knowledge about us and will influence everything we do,” he said. “Could these machines take over control of society?” 

To answer questions like these, not only research in cybernetic engineering but also studies in areas such as philosophy and social science will be necessary. “Researchers in human sciences must supervise what engineers are building,” Allgöwer said.

Ten years of partnership

Allgöwer’s presentation, entitled “Autonomous cars, smart energy distribution and Industry 4.0: Towards the new cybernetics of the 21st century,” was this year’s Leibniz Lecture, part of a program devised by the German Research Foundation (DFG) to foster a dialog between the winners of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, Germany’s equivalent of the Nobel awards, and the scientific community. Allgöwer, who is also Vice President of DFG, won a Leibniz Prize in 2004 for research in non-linear systems and control theory.

Hosted jointly by FAPESP and DFG, the event also celebrated ten years of partnership between the two research-funding institutions.

“As Vice President of DFG, I can say that our partnership with FAPESP is very special,” Allgöwer said. “Both organizations follow the same key funding principle: scientific quality. We also share the belief that the progress of science and knowledge requires a certain degree of freedom in research. We believe research driven by curiosity is essential to economic and social development as well as innovation.”

Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s Scientific Director, also emphasized the similarities between the two organizations. “We both value such qualities of researchers as initiative and curiosity,” he said. “We both value basic research and bottom-up research, in which the scientific community says what it thinks ought to be funded and how the selection process should work, always based on the scientific quality of the proposal.”

Also present at the opening ceremony was FAPESP Vice President Eduardo Moacyr Krieger, who said that Germany is one of Brazil’s longest-standing scientific research partners. Collaboration between the two countries is successful and intense. “I hope this event helps extend our collaboration,” he said.

Axel Zeidler, German Consul General in São Paulo, said that the partnership between FAPESP and DFG “is a key element in the scientific relations between Germany and Brazil.”

Kathrin Winkler, Director of DFG’s Office for Latin America in São Paulo, said that the partnership has resulted in a wide variety of joint programs. As examples, the results of two collaborative research projects led by researchers in São Paulo and Germany and co-funded by FAPESP and DFG were presented during the event.

Paulo Ruffino, a researcher at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), presented the project “Dynamic phenomena in complex networks: basics and applications”. The principal investigators for this project are Elbert Einstein Nehrer Macau, from Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE), and Jurgen Kurths, from Germany’s Humboldt University.

The group’s aim is to understand the behavior of complex networks using computational models and simulations. “The project is studying neural networks, climate networks, epidemics such as those involving Zika and chikungunya virus, and electric power distribution via smart grids, among others,” Ruffino said.

Luiz Carlos Carvalho Navegantes, a researcher from the University of São Paulo’s Ribeirão Preto Medical School (FMRP-USP), presented the project “Role and action mechanism of anabolic stimuli in neuromuscular trophicity”. The principal investigators for this project are Isis do Carmo Kettelhut (FMRP-USP), in Brazil, and Rüdiger Rudolf, from the Mannheim University of Applied Sciences in Germany.

The group is investigating the role of the sympathetic nervous system in the regulation of muscle contraction and trophism (nutrition). The results should contribute to the treatment of diseases such as myasthenia gravis, denervation atrophy, and myopathy.




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