Körber Prize 2019 for Bernhard Schölkopf

This year, the scientific distinction with the highest prize money in Germany goes to the pioneer of artificial intelligence

Bernhard Schölkopf, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen, is honoured with the Körber Prize for European Science 2019. The Körber Foundation awards the prize to honour the computer scientist’s contributions to machine learning, which today supplies one of the most important methods of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The Körber Prize includes prize money of one million Euros.

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A pioneer of Artificial Intelligence: Bernhard Schölkopf receives the 2019 Körber Prize for European Science.
© David Ausserhofer

Artificial Intelligence opens up new opportunities in ever more areas of day-to-day life: “AI is in play when a smartphone group stores photos according to faces and topics such as holidays,” Bernhard Schölkopf explains. “Or translates texts from one language into another.” The Max Planck Director contributed decisively to this success, for which this year the Körber Foundation is awarding him with the German research prize with the highest prize money.

Bernhard Schölkopf’s work has included a significant contribution to the development of support-vector machines and of a more general class of algorithms based on similar mathematical principles. These calculation specifications, which are called kernel methods, make it possible to classify objects. Even the first algorithms were able to recognize handwritten numbers almost as well as people, and better than any computing programs. In doing so, they use a mathematically transparent process. Schölkopf’s work has made it possible to develop support-vector machines and kernel methods further for applications in many areas. Today, they are e.g. used while processing medical images, in the manufacture of semi-conductors and in search engines.

Causal relationships in data

Today, Bernhard Schölkopf is working on algorithms which infer causal relationships: “If, in a built-up area, a 30 km/h speed limit sign has been pasted over in such a way that it looks like a 120 km/h sign, then the AI system of a driverless car must be able to infer from the context that this sign is to be ignored,” says the Max Planck scientist. He wants to enable AI systems to do this by making them more robust against perturbations using so-called causal inference.

Bernhard Schölkopf was born in Stuttgart in 1968. After studying physics, mathematics and philosophy in Tübingen and London, he went on a scholarship to the American Bell Labs, where his subsequent PhD supervisor Vladimir Vapnik was just beginning to conduct research into support-vector machines. In 1997, Schölkopf received his doctorate in computer science from the TU Berlin. After working in Cambridge, UK, and at a New York biotech start-up, Schölkopf became Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in 2001. In 2011, he was one of the founding directors of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen.

Schölkopf is co-founder of Cyber Valley in the Stuttgart-Tübingen region, a research network of academic and industrial partners, which is funded by the state of Baden-Württemberg, in which US companies are also involved. Together with other KI researchers he also initiated the ELLIS programme (European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems): “We plan to better network leading European locations, set up joint programmes and train doctoral students”, the scientist says. “Young top researchers should not have to go to the USA to work at the highest level”. In addition, it is important to have even more extensive state AI funding. Schölkopf intends to use the funds of the Körber Prize in his Causal Inference area of expertise and for workshops to promote the ELLIS project.


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