Körber-Prize 2019

Silence Is Silver, Talking Is Golden

Presumably the activity which we commonly refer to ­as science communication had previously never been as successful as in July, 1969, nor has it since: »One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.«­This sentence has been etched into the global memory­ of mankind and may be the one that is left of the twentieth century. It is an expression of that epoch at the summit of its possibilities: scientific and technological visions inspire the fantasies of mankind, and science and technol­ogy seem to make nearly everything possible: inexhaust­ible energy thanks to atomic power, surmounting all illnesses thanks to advances in medicine and pharmacy, and the elimination of hunger thanks to agrochemistry, and the elimination of hard and monot­onous labor thanks to automatization and robotics. Yet what still sounds like pure triumph can also be understood as a justification in response to the first slight doubts that have appeared. Was the landing on the moon really a decisive step for mankind? Or shouldn’t our energy and ingenuity be better turned toward the solution of completely mun­dane problems such as poverty and inequality?

Fifty years later, at any rate, the belief that science and technology would quasi-automatically lead to advances for the better is at best just a pious hope. It is becoming more and more evident that every technology and every advance has its price. This puts us in a situation in which open communication about science and technology is more important than ever. Such communication should not be one that reports about blessings and successes in a glossy presentation but one that makes the chances and risks of scientific-technological develop­ments accessible to a social debate. Participation, not persuasion is the order of the day.

Currently the threat that the voice of science will be degraded into simply another opinion among many is becoming stronger and stronger. This makes it all the more important that we resolutely take the side of reason and insist that social processes of negotiation should take place rationally, i.e., on the basis of scien­tific results.

Not least for this reason we take the occasion of the ­six­tieth anniversary of the founding of the Körber-Stiftung as the opportunity to demonstrate support in material form for our conviction that cutting-edge research is indispensable in Europe. We do this by raising the funding that accompanies the Körber European Science Prize to one million euros, effective this year. This acknowledgement of the achievements of researchers is accompanied by the challenge that future prize winners use 5% of the Prize money in the interest of science communication. It is precisely those whose work marks the respective peak of scientific progress in their field who should confront their obliga­tion to present their insights in public as early as possible and to make them available for discussion.

The Prize winner this year, the computer scientist and pioneer in machine learning Bernhard Schölkopf, already faces up to this task out of personal conviction. This is all the more important since his field of research—arti­ficial intelligence—has been a source of controversial social debates, matched perhaps only by genetic engineering. In contrast to earlier technological leaps, these discussions are taking place at a point in time when de facto everything has not already been decided. We can still arrange the modalities of this technology and the limitations to its use.

That a researcher in this field is the recipient of the Prize is, by the way, evidence for the ability of the Prize to adapt. For two years our Search Committees have had their eyes on the field called the computational sci­ences, a field in which massive scientific leaps are to be expected in the future. Both the committees associated with the Prize and the Chairman of the Trustee Committee of the Körber Prize, Professor Martin Stratmann, deserve our thanks because they not only make a significant contribution to the success and prestige of the Prize but also enrich it over and over again by providing new impulses for its development. Our congratula­tions however go to Bernhard Schölkopf, both for his scientific discoveries in artificial intelligence as well as for his efforts to give this field in Europe a globally competitive status. We consider it our good fortune that we know we are in agreement with the Prize winner and our Committees with regard to the central role to be ac­corded to communication that is open and willing to learn on all sides. In a variation of the motto of this editorial, considering the field of research that is our topic today, one could say, »Computing is silver, ­talking is golden!«

Matthias Mayer

Head of the Department of Science at Körber-Stiftung