Professor Thomas Kropf

"Trust is rooted in reliability."

forschung leben – the magazine of the University of Stuttgart (Issue October 2022)

Prof. Dr. Thomas Kropf, head of Bosch Research since 2018, discusses the ways in which connectivity is shaping our everyday lives, how AI is changing the industrial sector, and how companies and universities benefit from increased collaboration.
[Photo: Bosch Research]

What does the megatrend connectivity mean for business and society?

Prof. Dr. Thomas Kropf (TK) Actually, connectivity is no longer a trend as such, but is already creating more convenience, efficiency, and safety in everyday life for a wide range of products and encompasses connections in more than just the technical sense, something which the recent pandemic in particular has highlighted. One of the reasons why the economy remained productive was that people were able to keep in touch both privately and professionally thanks to videoconferencing, social networks, online learning services, and e-commerce platforms. 

It has been possible to network all of our electronic products since the beginning of the year. Customers now expect new functions in consumer goods that are only possible when the products are networked. For instance, I love baking bread and find it extremely convenient to be able to preheat the oven while I'm still out and about. Connectivity also plays a key role in the mobility sector – from up-to-date information on traffic jams to driver assistance systems, and automated driving. Whether or not drivers are aware of it, cars are continuously exchanging information with traffic systems and other vehicles. Probably the best example of how connectivity saves lives are the automatic emergency call systems that are mandatory in new vehicles. 

But there are also risks associated with networking including malfunctions caused by software glitches, data theft, and manipulation by hackers, which is why many people remain skeptical about it. 

TK "Digital Trust" is the keyword in this context: Our quality assurance promise not only applies to the real world, but also to the digital sphere. In addition to functionality, this includes the secure management of data, which can now be collected anonymously. One of our important research focuses is on cyberattack protection. Bosch has developed a set of ethical standards for the application of artificial intelligence (AI), which are taken into account in all product development processes and which stipulate, among other things, that AI must be robust, safe, and understandable, and that no decisions affecting people should ever be made without the involvement of a human being.

About Prof. Dr. Kropf

Prof. Dr. Thomas Kropf has headed up the Research and Advance Engineering Division at Robert Bosch GmbH since July 2018. He joined the Bosch Group in 1999 and, prior to his current position, was responsible for systems development for the automotive sector, among other things. Kropf studied electrical engineering and earned his doctorate and habilitation in computer science. In addition to his work at Bosch, he currently teaches computer science at the University of Tübingen.

How important is artificial intelligence for the development of connected products?

TK They go hand-in-hand! The real-time availability of data is only made possible through connectivity, and, as we know,  AI is only as smart as the data and the algorithms we feed it, which means that the full potential of AI can only be realized in a reliable and secure combination with connectivity, which currently plays a central role in almost every area of application in which we carry out our research. In recent years, the Bosch Center for Artificial Intelligence (BCAI), in collaboration with the engineering sciences, has significantly advanced the development of AI applications such as deep learning, computer vision, and natural language processing. 

What is the strategic direction of Bosch's connectivity research, and what are your priorities for the next few years?

TK A key focus is on researching and developing solutions for the "factory of tomorrow" based on networking and artificial intelligence. Electronic networking is changing the industrial sector even more than the private sector, where connectivity solutions are already widespread. Not only does the real-time availability of quality, process, and machinery data facilitate more flexible and efficient production processes, it also opens the door to completely new business models. We are currently collaborating with several partners from the industrial sector as well as the University of Stuttgart on the "Software-Defined Manufacturing for the Automotive and Supplier Industry" (SDM4FZI) project . One focus of our research is on the construction of a production station using a standardized basic frame and variable modules, which will make it possible to adapt the production system's hardware to changing requirements.  We are also researching the development of an "engineering toolchain", which is a software toolbox for simplifying and expediting the redesign of production systems. 

In addition to AI and robotics, another important research area for Bosch Research is the "Internet of Things" (IoT) in relation to connected household appliances, tools, smart home services, and energy management. Modern energy systems would be inconceivable in the absence of networking: photovoltaic systems are connected to battery storage units, which are in turn used to charge electric cars; smart, energy-efficient, heating systems are controlled by sensors and learning algorithms. A particularly clear example of how networking in the form of sector coupling can make a significant contribution to sustainability concerns energy management.

 We are always interested in research collaborations with universities on all of these subjects, s this is where basic research meets practical applicability. Both parties find it highly beneficial to conduct joint research based on real-world application data.

We are always interested in research collaborations with universities on all of these subjects, as this is where basic research meets practical applicability.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Kropf

From your perspective, what should universities be doing to address the challenges of connectivity?

TK Although universities succeeded in making the digital transition quickly and well during the pandemic, I don't think enough attention is being paid to the opportunities it presents: they shouldn't just be reverting back to earlier teaching models. I'm a big fan of the "flipped classroom" concept, in which students study theoretical concepts at home and then come together at the university to apply what they've learned.

What would make collaboration with universities easier from your perspective?

TK The regulations relating to the protection of intellectual property are a major hurdle. The IP regulations in Germany are such that collaborations with universities are often not worthwhile for businesses. They also make it more difficult to set up spin-off companies and discourage investors. The IP regulations in the USA, by contrast, are much more favorable for university spin-offs and business enterprises. Germany is its own worst enemy in this respect! I would also welcome more permeability between universities and industry: it would be wonderful if more researchers, particularly post-docs, would take the opportunity to conduct research while working for a company for one or two years. Students should engage in project work even earlier and to a greater extent, and in as interdisciplinary and international a way as possible, which reflects the reality of industrial research and development. 

Bosch has been collaborating with the University of Stuttgart for over 80 years.

TK Yes, and this collaboration works very well! Bosch is a sponsor member of Arena 2036, and a new collaboration in quantum sensor technology was also established this year. In addition to SDM4FZI, we are participating in another major joint project relating to connectivity known as the Software-Defined Car (SofDCar) project. Being so heavily involved in research collaborations also enables us to recruit excellent specialists: the majority of the graduates in technical subjects that we at Bosch recruit throughout Germany come from the University of Stuttgart.

Bosch Research and the University of Stuttgart will be hosting "Inventing the Future" in late October, a joint event on futuristic topics related to connectivity and AI. What do you see as the benefits of an even closer strategic collaboration?

TK Trust is rooted in reliability. A whole range of issues can be better resolved if strategic road maps are put in place to ensure that collaboration goes beyond individual projects strung together. Planning is also easier when both parties know that they have a reliable partner with a similar interest in certain research topics. And finally, collaborations with a high public profile could potentially reduce the mistrust of university-business collaborations, which is unfortunately still widespread among the general public, despite the fact that they are crucial for the innovation cycle. Economic structures, processes, and development time frames from industrial research can further increase the efficiency of university research. And if stakeholders in the industrial sector are able to conduct research and work more productively with the help of the knowledge generated by the academic research community, this will also benefit university research through the taxes they pay. 

Interview: Miriam Hoffmeyer



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