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Sebastian Thrun Receives Aachen Engineering Award

Photo: Andreas Schmitter


The award ceremony offered many fascinating insights into how articifical intelligence has the potential to improve our everyday lives.

It was an evening full of visionary ideas: On Friday, September 3, Professor Sebastian Thrun was presented with the Aachen Engineering Award in the Coronation Hall of Aachen City Hall. With the joint award, RWTH Aachen University and the City of Aachen honored the researcher’s outstanding achievements.

Thrun has been working in California since 2003, for example as head of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Stanford University. “Sebastian Thrun's work in AI and robotics has provided the cornerstones on which AI engineering is based,” said Professor Armin B. Cremers, co-founder of the Bonn-Aachen International Center for Information Technology and the laureate's doctoral supervisor at the University of Bonn. According to Cremers, Thrun’s activities in Bonn already had an incredible impact “on Bonn, on Aachen, and also beyond NRW, leaving a mark both nationally and internationally.”

Dieter Westerkamp, member of the management board of the VDI Association of German Engineers, which sponsors the award, said in his welcome address: “The job profile of engineers is undergoing fundamental change. Artificial intelligence will bring yet another wave of change. We have to face the challenge of lifelong learning and keep asking ourselves: Can we do what we do even better, more cost-effectively, more efficiently, or faster? And what role does artificial intelligence play in our endeavors?”

The Vast Potential of AI

The potential of artificial intelligence is enormous – consequently, RWTH has founded an AI Center to pool its competencies in the field. What AI can achieve was illustrated on site by a presentation of the Carologistics team. The logistics robots of the team of RWTH and FH students recently secured the 2021 world championship title of the RoboCup Logistics League.

At the award ceremony, Sebastian Thrun outlined the great opportunities that AI is bringing to society: “The methods of AI are groundbreaking, because they offer possibilities that we have never seen before. In recent decades, computers were programmed by experts who had to define rules to cover all eventualities. And now computers can get smart themselves, for example in cancer detection, to find tumors faster and better than most doctors.”

According to Sibylle Keupen, Lord Mayor of the City of Aachen, the presentation of the Engineering Award illustrates that “Aachen lives and breathes engineering. Aachen is innovative, our many engineers strengthen the city, and they stay here because they love the networking opportunities and the quality of life here. I am very proud of that.”

RWTH Rector Ulrich Rüdiger also highlighted the fruitful symbiosis between the City and the University: “RWTH is a driving force in our city, as is captured by our anniversary motto of ‘Lernen, Forschen, Machen’: We do something with our knowledge, we apply it. That’s what we want to achieve: To dare to do something. To create value from knowledge, value for the benefit of society.”

Great Challenges Lie Ahead

According to Rector Rüdiger and Mayor Keupen, “Aachen and RWTH cannot be separated.” They also optimistic about what the University can achieve in an increasingly challenging future. “We are facing great challenges,” Keupen said. “We have recently experienced how fragile our world is. We now have the chance to stop man-made climate change, and to do that we need engineers who use their knowledge to develop technologies that help address it. And Aachen is very well-positioned to do so.”

Professor Rüdiger wants the University to build the city of tomorrow by tackling today’s pressing topics. “These topics are future energy supplies, mobility, production, health, and information technology. That's what I want to see on our campus, with people who want to dare to push the envelope, to try something out. We are well-equipped to contribute to developing the entire city.”

In her speech, Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen, Minister for Culture and Science of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, highlighted the laureate’s accomplishments: “Today, not least due to your contributions, advances in AI have evolved at a rapid pace, and its applications are becoming increasingly present in our daily lives. Your work is groundbreaking and an achievement on which much of our current technological progress is being built. It is an honor for Aachen, RWTH, and North-Rhine Westphalia that we are able to welcome you as a laureate.”

According to Professor Armin B. Cremers, RWTH’s motto of ‘Lernen. Forschen. Machen.’ aptly captures the spirit of Sebastian Thrun’s activities: This motto implied “reflecting, deciding, consistently going your own way. Thrun’s research and achievements have been excellently summarized by the jury. I can only congratulate the jury for making such a great choice. Especially the notion of creating systems aligned with human objectives and values is highly important. Sebastian Thrun's work has created the cornerstones on which AI engineering is based as we are envisioning it here and around the world.”

Identifying New Problems

For Sebastian Thrun, AI development contributes to “improving people without ever replacing them. We have always created technologies that make ourselves better. We have to not only solve problems, but also identify new problems, new structures. It's necessary to have an open eye, to discover things that will bring us great benefits later. We are in a phase where we can exchange thoughts and communicate much more intensively. This is of great importance not only for technology, but also for the humanities and society as a whole. We will become better and better, especially in the health care system. We will also become more human. Through AI, through automation, we can liberate ourselves, be more creative.”

Thrun concluded with a vision that reflects curiosity and pride: “I thank you very much and I am happy to see how culture and science are brought together here in Aachen. We live in a time with an exponential explosion of inventions that make us better. Imagine what will happen in the next 150 years.”

The Aachen Engineering Award is an honor jointly awarded by RWTH Aachen and the City of Aachen – with generous support from VDI, the Association of German Engineers. The award is annually presented to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the positive perception and further development of engineering with their life’s work.