A pipeline full of ideas
Two start-ups from the Charlottenburg Innovation Centre CHIC are making our lives easier and more convenient
Sebastian Denef is a workaholic. Nevertheless, he is convinced that we will all be working less in the near future. How do those two things reconcile? Just last year, he was a researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO. And he started his first business at 18. Now, he manages the IT start-up OWN.space, which has been housed at the Charlottenburg Innovation Centre CHIC in Berlin since March 2018 with a branch in the Russian satellite city of Innopolis, near Kasan. In addition to this, he teaches at Innopolis University, the top IT university of Russia, from which he recruited the majority of his employees. The question that drives Denef tirelessly on is: How is artificial intelligence helping to create new, better work cultures and structures for us?
The 16-strong OWN.space team’s answer to that is digital agents. These go by the names of news agent, science agent, finance agent, company agent, agent for intellectual property, and quite a few more. “What is special about our agents is that they use AI,” says Tatjana Samsonowa, a co-founder of OWN.space. They search through news sources, for example, sort out information, create summaries of scientific texts, analyse social media and visualise their results. All information is collected on a digital pinboard, which can be accessed simultaneously by all team members of a project.
The first prototypes and test runs are promising. This includes a cooperation with the scientific publishing group Springer Nature AG & Co. KGaA. “If I want to catch up on the latest in a scientific topic, the science agent digs through databases containing more than 48,000 journals and 200 million articles and presents its results to me in just a few minutes. That saves me two weeks of time compared to doing my own research,” says Denef.
The virtual assistants are already being used in a wide variety of areas. There are applications for the police in Bavaria, for example, where criminologists have access to all information related to a case at all times. By running automated comparisons, connections with similar cases can be revealed and patterns detected. The Leibniz Association has agents informing them of research funding programmes and the Schaeffler Group is kept informed of technology trends. Because the acquisition of customers cannot keep up with the wealth of ideas, the OWN.space team has also submitted research applications: for an agent that helps in finding jobs and an agent that assists those who are sick. The AI specialists’ approach is to integrate existing smart services. The agents work with other programs such as IBM’s Watson or Microsoft services. All agents developed so far can be tested for free on the OWN.space website.
Were you to ask Sebastian Denef what other kind of agent he would still wish for most, it would be one that assists him in teaching. We will see whether he finds the time for that. At the moment, the father of a two-year-old daughter is also using his spare time to train for the Berlin Marathon.
A similarly rigorous workload to Denef’s is that of Peter Udo Diehl of Audatic, another company housed at CHIC. Diehl and company co-founder Elias Sprengel want to use AI to revolutionise the quality of hearing aids. The market is gigantic: “360 million people worldwide are hard of hearing and should be wearing a hearing aid; only 15 percent of those do actually wear one,” says Diehl. While modern hearing aids these days are small and as good as invisible, the main criticism that most hearing aid wearers give is the disturbing background noises. Diehl has heard this not only from his 91-year-old grandma, who needs a hearing aid, but also through research among more than 50 hearing aid acousticians.
It was in the spring of 2017. Diehl and Sprengel, who were then working full-time in different companies, used their annual leave to program a prototype that eliminates disturbing noises. Audatic was founded in February 2018. The choice of location swung between Berlin and Zurich. The pendulum ultimately settled on the German capital city. “The most important resource for an AI startup is talented people, and they are attracted to Berlin,” says Diehl. Audatic has an international team of ten employees at present.
The centrepiece of the company is the server room. There, two dozen computers are in continuous Deep Learning operation. They are learning to recognise speech and to separate it out from background noises. “That allows for selective hearing,” say Diehl. It would even be possible to create a personalised audio environment this way, for example for augmented reality applications. If you were to put on virtual reality glasses and imagine you were on a beach, instead of the noisy servers, you would hear only the sound of waves.
The first Audatic version runs on a smartphone. Whether in a restaurant, in a car using a hands-free system or in a business meeting: the person you are talking to is easy to understand and all other sounds are largely suppressed. There are still many functions missing that are needed in a hearing aid, but “we are currently talking with hearing aid manufacturers and tech giants like Google and others,” says Diehl. He anticipates the first product will be developed within an app by the end of the year. It will still be several years, however, until their idea can be integrated into a hearing aid.
Diehl, born in Thüringen and who previously worked not only in research but also for the management consultancy McKinsey, burns for his company; a 70-hour week is normal for him. He recharges his energy stores doing sports, exploring the Berlin culture scene and serving as an enthusiastic hobby bartender.
By Sylvia Nitschke for Adlershof Journal