Out of the niche, on to international fame
50 years Department of Computer Science: Interview with Emeritus Professor Wolfgang Bibel
2022/05/20 by Astrid Ludwig
He is regarded as one of the top ten personalities in German AI history: Wolfgang Bibel, professor emeritus of TU Darmstadt, was one of the first scientists in Germany to conduct research in the area of Artificial Intelligence, achieving international recognition. As professor for Intellectics and an expert for deduction, he was for two decades a leading figure and formative force of the Department of Computer Science at TU Darmstadt, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022, and he laid the foundation for the department’s leading position in AI research.
Praise came from way up. “Wolfgang Bibel’s lifetime achievements count among the very best that German AI research has produced,” declared Professor Wolfgang Wahlster in his laudatory speech on the occasion of Bibel’s 80th birthday. Wahlster is not just anybody: He is a member of the Nobel Prize Academy in Stockholm, founding director of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, and holds an honorary doctorate from TU Darmstadt. He held this speech honouring his colleague and friend 2018 in Darmstadt. After all, the Professor emeritus did not have a private birthday with bubbly and snacks, but celebrated by hosting a symposium on the future of AI research with more than a hundred scientists participating.
Wolfgang Bibel is a researcher and scientist to the core. Although more than 83 years old, this long-time professor at TU Darmstadt passes his time not merely by watching red kites fly by or the mountain panorama from his domicile of choice near Lake Constance. “I’m still working full-time,” he says, laughing. Although he may be not quite as intensely busy as in former years, the number of his publications per year is still on a par with many of his colleagues in active tenure. Just one day earlier, the computer trade magazine “Informatik-Spektrum” agreed to publish Bibel’s latest work. In May, he will take part in a conference at the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, and in recent years, this AI expert was a welcome speaker at many conferences and congresses, e.g. in Brazil and Washington. “I have found my path of life, and even my age will not deter me,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
For Bibel, who was born in Nuremberg, research is “the continuation of the childlike urge to reconnoitre with curiosity the surrounding world.” And for Wolfgang Bibel, this primarily means a world revolutionised by the invention of the computer, which made Artificial Intelligence possible in the first place. “Everything we cannot perceive with our senses used to be mere speculation. Including all information processes which are present everywhere in nature in a great variety of expressions. Whether it’s bees and their waggle dance, or us humans with all our mental and intellectual capabilities.” Only the universal computer, says Bibel, has made it possible to do scientific research on this huge area of nature. The former TU Darmstadt professor sees AI not as a technological discipline, but primarily as one of the natural sciences, which is why he called his chair “Intellectics”.
The AI pioneer is an expert in deduction. The connection method developed by him, which enables computers to automatically arrive at logical deductions in a very compact manner, today counts as one of the foundations of computer science. His works on automatic proofs, automatic programme synthesis, logical programming, knowledge presentation, stochastic search, and on planning are among the great professional achievements by which he has been formative for AI in Darmstadt. His colleague Wolfgang Wahlster, himself one of the leading figures in AI, calls Bibel a “research genius”. In 1990, he was the first German to be nominated as “Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence”. A true accolade. The Professor emeritus is the author of 21 books and more than 300 publications, is co-founder of AI associations and organizations in Germany and Europe, and has received numerous awards, among them the Herbrand Award, for his scientific accomplishments.
All this even though his was a rocky road to reach international fame. Wolfgang Bibel first came to the computer science department at “Technische Hochschule Darmstadt”, as it was then called, in 1985/86 as a substitute professor. Following the initiative of a colleague, he taught for half a year at the vacant chair for information systems, a position he subsequently applied for, being encouraged to do so. “After that, I heard nothing for months,” he remembers. When the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada offered him a professorship in 1987, he thus accepted right away. A dream position in a dream city. “After I had been there for four weeks, I received the letter of acceptance from Darmstadt,” Bibel recounts.
From Vancouver to Darmstadt
Despite ideal framework conditions in Canada, the researcher moved back from Vancouver to Darmstadt. His family had stayed in Germany, and he now had a pretty good negotiation position at Darmstadt. He was granted “very good equipment and conditions” for his new research area of Intellectics. “I was able to build my niche.” Bibel had had to wait many years for a professorship. As a student, he had initially studied physics, then switched to mathematics, and got his doctorate in mathematical logics. During his initial time as a student, he says to have been a “seeker”, switching between disciplines, until he finally found his true purpose: Artificial Intelligence. He became a senior scientific assistant at the institute for computer science at the Technical University Munich, where he had the bad luck to encounter a professor who detested AI – at that time held in contempt by many in computer science – and who prevented Bibel from habilitating.
He thus endured several years in Munich, scorned by his colleagues although scientifically successful, before his career got under way in Darmstadt. Still, he remembers that “it was not a particularly harmonious atmosphere there” when he arrived. Major research institutions and what was later to become Fraunhofer institutes were playing a very important role. Computer science was spread out over two departments – control and data technology, and informatics – and both were often at odds with each other. AI was nowhere represented at that time. Equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, Wolfgang Bibel quickly managed to establish “his niche” as the largest chair besides the Fraunhofer institutes. His lectures were modern, he introduced the American way of writing tests and intermediary exams in order to give his students more timely feedback on their performance, and to motivate them.
As Dean, he campaigned for innovations and for introducing more professional management structures, and he organised computer science colloquia with lectures held by legendary personalities like Konrad Zuse. The post-grad programme “Intelligent Systems for Information and Automation Technology” became a success. Among the decisive moments, he also cites the appointment of Professor Johannes Buchmann, a renowned cryptologist and IT security expert, as well as the designation of the Zintl Institute building for exclusively housing the Computer Science department.
Formative influences on the Computer Science department at TU Darmstadt
Bibel further consolidated his position when after receiving the offer of a professorship in Vienna in 1992, he decided to stay in Darmstadt following successful negotiations with the university’s Executive Board. He was thus able to further expand and improve the endowment of his research area. As an initiator and coordinator, he managed to establish the focus area “Deduction” which received subsidies of 20 million Deutschmark from the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany (DFG). “For TU Darmstadt, that was a pretty rare prestige project at the time.” On the international stage, he initiated an exchange programme for excellent students with UBC in Vancouver, the university he remained close to as adjunct professor until his retirement. His research area received international reputation and contributed to the increasing renown of computer science in Darmstadt. Wolfgang Bibel appreciates the quality of the department today as outstanding. “It is without any doubt one of the leading computer science departments in Germany.”
In 2004, Bibel retired as professor, but not as researcher. And what is his advice for today’s AI researchers? He says he regrets that up to this day, the natural science discipline behind AI is not really acknowledged and established, AI being instead primarily understood as technology. He sees it as a great opportunity to be able to make good use of AI development learnings and insights. “They may have the potential to save humanity from fundamental crises like the impending climate catastrophe, or even from totally unnecessary wars like the one going on right now in Ukraine,” he is convinced.