Heroes of Math Inspire the Next Generation

At the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, the world’s foremost mathematicians and computer scientists offer advice and intellectual challenges to young researchers

Heidelberg Ziegler

Günter M. Ziegler, a professor of discrete geometry at the Free University of Berlin, served as the master of ceremony for the opening of the fourth Heidelberg Laureate Forum. Credit: © Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation / Flemming – 2016. Used with permission.

HEIDELBERG — For an aspiring mathematician or computer scientist, Heidelberg is the place to be in September. That’s when the Heidelberg Laureate Forum takes place. The 2016 forum gave 200 young researchers from 55 countries the chance to meet with over 20 winners of the most prestigious awards in mathematics and computer science: the Abel Prize, the Fields Medal and the A.M. Turing Award.

The Klaus Tschira Foundation established the forum in 2013. Tschira, a physicist who was one of the founders of the software giant SAP, supported the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, which served as a model for the Heidelberg forum. As stated on the forum’s website, “it is particularly important to create an environment for personal communication among people who are dedicated to science, among role models and young researchers.” The forum seeks to provide this environment for researchers in mathematics and computer science, noting that “we need to seek help from our scientific heroes who can inspire the next generation of scientists.”

At the 2016 forum, inspiration came from many sources. Brian Schmidt, vice chancellor of Australian National University, helped to kick off the meeting with a lecture about his field, cosmology. His talk mimicked his career in the sense that its goal was “to describe the vital statistics of the universe,” including its size, weight, shape and age, and “to make sense of the universe’s past, present and future.” (Schmidt’s lecture and most of the forum’s other talks are posted on YouTube.)

Schmidt shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics with Adam Riess and Saul Perlmutter for their discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.  The cause is thought to be ‘dark energy,’ which constitutes about three-quarters of the universe. In responding to a question about his team’s discovery, Schmidt said that the data “seemed too crazy to be right. We were a little scared. I actually got this sinking feeling in my stomach thinking I had just spent three years of my life making a giant mistake.” Dark energy, Schmidt noted, is among the biggest mysteries in cosmology, along with questions about dark matter, neutrino mass and cosmic inflation.

A ‘hot topic’ session raised open questions about artificial intelligence (AI). The panel of experts included Google vice president Vinton Cerf (whose business card says Chief Internet Evangelist); Holger Schwenk, research scientist at Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research Paris; and Noel Sharkey, a co-founder of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics. They offered reassurance to the audience that they did not lose sleep fearing that AI will lead to the end of humanity, as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have said and Skynet has done (in the Terminator movies).

But they did express concern about a lack of planning in AI. Sharkey, a consultant to the TV show “Westworld,” which explores the emergence of self-awareness in robots, warned that “we seem to be sleepwalking” into AI the same way we did into the internet and urged us take responsibility for the technology we create. Sharkey pointed out that the number of robots in use around the world is skyrocketing: In 2014, 4.7 million service robots were sold for personal domestic use, and sales of 38 million are expected by 2018. Although the potential is exciting, humans really have no idea what these numbers will bring, he noted, adding that we must think broadly about what control we want to cede to machines and potentially codify the results in “a new bill of human technological rights.”

Heidelberg Forum

From the opening ceremony of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. Credit: © Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation / Kreutzer – 2016. Used with permission.

If the discussion was meant to stimulate thinking about the future of AI, then an exhibit specially designed for the forum revealed how far computer science has come. Called “Konrad Zuse’s Early Computing Machines,” the exhibit showed how Zuse played a pioneering role in the history of computing, explained AI professor and computing historian Raúl Rojas of Free University. Zuse developed the first fully functioning, fully automatic, program-controlled and freely programmable electromechanical computer, the Z3, in 1941. World War II derailed Zuse, Rojas said. “It took five more years for Zuse to resume his work. It was too late for a German computer industry — the computer technology on the other side of the Atlantic had its triumph.”

The forum drew attendees from a variety of backgrounds. One of them was Waqar Ali from Pakistan, who is pursuing a master’s degree in pure mathematics at Trinity College in Cambridge, U.K. The global representation at the forum gave him hope, he said: “There are people from different nationalities here, many of whom belong to countries that are not at the forefront of mathematical and scientific research.” Ali thinks there are more opportunities for young intellectual minds these days, noting that his participation in the Mathematical Olympiads at an early age was a factor in his decision to pursue a career in mathematics.

“The organizers of the forum did a great job of getting underrepresented researchers” from developing countries, said Barbara Liskov, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of only three women to have won the Turing Award, Liskov noted that there is plenty of room for additional outreach. “If you look at most high-tech companies and universities, there is still only a small percentage of women and underrepresented minorities” in math and computer science, she said. According to a survey report (pdf) by the American Mathematical Society, women hold only 15 percent of tenure-track positions in mathematics in the U.S.

At the close of the meeting, Beate Spiegel, chair of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation and managing director of the Klaus Tschira Foundation, reiterated the commitment of the forum foundation and its partners to these high-level events. “The forum will be continued as long as the open, unfettered scientific exchange between laureates and young researchers is a useful means for advancing science — which we are convinced will be the case for a long time,” she said.

Undergraduates, doctoral candidates and postdocs may apply to attend the next forum, to be held September 24-29, 2017. The deadline is February 14, 2017. The forum FAQ is here.