From climate change to after-work parties in the Stone Age: All over Germany, unusual research projects are underway.

Cyber Valley (Tübingen and Stuttgart)

What do hugging robots, deep data mining, and avatars have in common? They’re all at home in the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (MPI-IS).

Based in Tübingen and Stuttgart, in the southwestern region of Swabia, the research institute combines theory, software, and hardware expertise in artificial intelligence (AI), the branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers.

In 2016, MPI-IS teamed up with local universities and industrial partners such as Daimler, Bosch, Amazon, and Porsche in order to create a hub for AI.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen © MPI-IS

The idea is to combine traditional Made in Germany strengths in areas like automotive engineering with the vital backbone of German industry – Mittelstand companies – and propel these into the digital future. Or, as Winfried Kretschmann, federal minister of Baden-Württemberg, phrased it in a speech: "Homeland, Hightech, Highspeed." Without a doubt, AI and self-driving cars will become commonplace in the near future.

In Cyber Valley, both can already be seen in action. Researchers here have taught robots to hug. They have analyzed the motor skills of geckos to improve robots’ agility. And hundreds of Amazon employees will soon be at work in Tübingen improving the AI behind Alexa, the company’s language assistant.

Yet some local residents fear that the industry could begin to dictate which fields are worthy of research and which aren’t. At the end of last year, a small group of university students in Tübingen occupied a lecture hall to protest Cyber Valley.

MPI-IS also hosts a graduate school for AI, the International Max Planck Research School for Intelligent Systems.

Climate, Climatic Change, and Society (Hamburg)

A research project on climate change analyzes nothing less than the future of humanity © UHH/​CEN/​Thomas Wasilewski

Whether it’s forced migration, the melting of polar caps, or the future of humankind – there is probably no topic as prevalent as climate change.

Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, discussion in media and society has not only focussed on climate policy but also on climate research.

Now, Hamburg is home to the new Cluster of Excellence "Climate, Climatic Change, and Society" (CLICCS) to address the pressing issue.

This article was excerpted from ZEIT Germany 2/2019. Click here to read the entire issue in PDF format for free.

The cluster program, launched in January 2019, is coordinated through Universität Hamburg’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN). It collaborates closely with large research institutes such as Max Planck Institute for Meteorology (MPI-M), the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht (HZG), and the German Climate Computing Center (DKRZ). All of these are based in or near the port city of Hamburg. The key question of the cluster research is to distinguish which climate futures are possible and which are plausible. At the same time, some researchers take sociology into account. For instance, they ask how citizens deal with climate change, and how it’s affecting their daily lives, career choices, and even travel.

Students in the newly formed cluster hail from 28 countries on five continents. They do basic research, but they also work with economists and peace scholars; some also focus on how media cover the topic of climate change.

Climate research has received recognition in Hamburg: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited the cluster recently. And Prince William and Princess Kate, on a visit to Hamburg in 2017, talked to students to learn how sea ice is being affected by climate change.

Excellence Cluster Topoi (Berlin)

The smallest of artefacts shed light on how society worked in the distant past © D. Bonatz

Sure, Berlin has a buzzing nightlife. But it also has a high density of museums and ancient history: The city’s Museum Island is home to the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, the Ishtar Gate, and more.

In 2007, the proposal of the Topoi Cluster of Excellence was approved: Two universities, four research institutes, and one large network project – the Formation and Transformation of Space and Knowledge in Ancient Civilizations. The research institutes are the German Archaeological Institute, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz.