Mann lehnt sich an die Tafel

Scientific Ambassador Prof. Christoph Meinel

Christoph Meinel is the Director and Manager of the Hasso Plattner Institute for Software System Technology (HPI), the Director of the Digital Engineering Faculty and holder of the Academic Chair of Internet Technologies and Systems at the University of Potsdam. He studied mathematics and computer sciences at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where he also received his doctorate. After the fall of the Berlin Wall he was appointed Professor of Computer Sciences in Trier.

Audio Version

Prof. Christoph Meinel interviewed by Thomas Prinzler | rbb Inforadio

The Hasso Plattner Institute as a training centre for IT specialists covers a broad array of fields and goes beyond the area of engineering. What are you currently researching?

The Internet is something that continues to evolve and we have just reached a very exciting stage in the evolution of the Internet. The previously used protocol, i.e. the technology behind the Internet, is reaching its limits. So what does that mean? In order to be able to address someone on the Internet, to send an e-mail or to exchange data, I have to be able to address my partner, who needs to have an address on the Internet. That's the so-called IP address. The data package must know where it needs to go and the Internet, or more precisely the routers, must know where to send the data package. At the beginning people thought that it would be sufficient for everyone to have one e-mail address or one web address or one Internet address. This is why they designed a space with around four billion IP addresses. Each address is exactly 32 bits long, and therefore there can be a maximum of 232 or about four billion different Internet addresses altogether. And now the rapid evolution of the Internet is about to surpass these numbers. These four billion addresses have been almost exhausted in a relatively short time (the Internet, as we know it, has only existed for 20 years). Why? Because, of course, everyone needs more than just one IP address, because if a person has a mobile phone, a computer in the office or at home, this person needs addresses for all those things, even refrigerators might soon need an individual address, and so will home technologies or cars. Internet addresses are needed for this Internet of Things. We must therefore quickly replace the current Internet Protocol, which offers only 4 billion IP addresses, with a new one, the so-called IPv6. We at the Hasso Plattner Institute want to help and we are trying to convince our society, the business sector and the institutions to readjust their systems so that they will be able to use the new Internet Protocol. For example, Asia is already much more ahead of us and this puts the pressure on us to make sure that we can keep up with them with regard to the Internet and that we can continue to participate in the Internet’s future growth and in all its innovative developments within the field of economy and in society.

I suppose a non-existent cooperation between the business sector and your institute would be something unthinkable...

This is unthinkable throughout the entire field of informatics, not just at the Hasso Plattner Institute, which is clearly linked to Hasso Plattner, the benefactor of our institute and founder and Chairman of the Supervisory Board of SAP, the largest German software corporation. It is also unthinkable if you want to train young people in the field of technology and enable them to develop and operate new IT systems. These systems have already become so complex that we at the universities can no longer give the young people the opportunity to work with such systems. We need partners from the economic sector, the administration and the industry who, of course, have very large IT systems, so that we can show them to our young students. The idea of a student sitting in a basement with a coke bottle and a chocolate bar, which prevailed for so long, has been a thing of the past for some time now. Today we have teams – very efficient and most of the time interdisciplinary teams – and these teams must possess a high degree of social and communication skills in order to be able to focus on all the topics from the different areas of our society and to develop and offer appropriate IT solutions.

Can you find a sufficient number of interested persons? Don’t computer science students prefer to go to Saarbrücken or to America?

You're addressing a very sensitive issue. In this regard the problem might not be our competition in Saarbrücken or America, but rather that too many of our young people in Germany do not believe that they can look forward to rewarding lifelong careers after admittedly relatively difficult studies in the field of computer science, IT systems engineering or, more generally, engineering. Some people think they can achieve more with a less difficult study programme or with a more colourful portfolio or with a more fashionable field of study.

In Germany we lack engineering students. We have a lot of applicants at the Hasso Plattner Institute and are therefore free to choose, but in Germany there is a lack of young people in the fields of mathematics, computer science and engineering; it is also particularly problematic that young women do not choose a study programme in this field. However, the few women who dare to do so perform very well. When we honour the best students at the end of the master's or bachelor's programmes, typically 50% of the honoured students are women, even though women make up only about 10 to 20% of the students.

Where do you find new partners for collaborations? Do you find them here in the region or rather at the international level?

Information technology is a very global business. Even if we start talking to a company in Germany about a project, it is very likely that we will soon continue our talks with the company's subsidiaries, which are located somewhere around the globe, and work jointly on the project. In our region we have mainly young start-up companies and our students are also involved in them. Most of the time we can’t find the really big companies, the big corporations here in the region and we need to cooperate with them in order to bring young people into contact with really complex IT systems.

Can you give us an example; how does successful cooperation look like?

Let’s take SAP as an example. However, this example is not entirely without risks, because some people do not really see a difference between the Hasso Plattner Institute and SAP. I have to then tell them that SAP and the Hasso Plattner Institute are completely independent entities, but that, like in a family, they have a common father, who is the founder of the largest IT company in Germany, SAP, and the founder and benefactor of a university institute, namely the Hasso Plattner Institute. Due to SAP’s massive impact we of course cooperate with SAP and we carry out many different projects, but we do so also with other companies. In the past, we have worked quite successfully with our SAP colleagues in Paolo Alto, with the large SAP lab in Silicon Valley in the USA, and also with our SAP colleagues in Walldorf. This experience very quickly prompted SAP to realize that it makes sense to move closer to the region and construct something here. We then jointly discussed the how and where to do it; we were able to convince SAP in particular by presenting the argument that our Berlin-Brandenburg region has a very large number of diverse universities and universities of applied sciences offering numerous study programmes. This attracts high-tech companies and makes them come to our region. SAP, for example, has founded an innovation centre in Potsdam; by the way... it is SAP’s only one worldwide. It is still under construction. However, it is already clear that it is much easier to work together and draft and complete joint projects at the regional level.

In 2004 you were called upon to come from Trier to Potsdam and you followed the call. What convinced you to make this decision? And what has made you stay here ever since?

The background of the Hasso Plattner Institute is completely unique throughout Germany. There is a founder from the IT sector who has become prosperous and now shares this wealth and says: “With this wealth I want to promote the education of young people and enable them to one day become the leaders within the IT sector.” This creates a situation in which it is possible to work on the exciting topics of our time. Universities – which are publicly funded in Germany – are sometimes somewhat slow to react for a number of reasons. In state systems everyone must be treated equally and this is why the initiatives of individuals are then being, I dare to say, quickly slowed down or at least not fostered. If we have – here at the Hasso Plattner Institute – an idea, if there is something we believe to be an interesting research topic or if it could lead to promising collaborations, then we have – in Hasso Plattner – a very professional benefactor to whom we can talk to and who responds based on his great experience and says: “Man, that's great, that's what we're going to do!”, or: “Mmm, we probably shouldn't deal with that!”. Accordingly, we might start working on it the very next day. An example in this regard would be our new “openHPI” [open Hasso Plattner Institute] project, in which we use the new social media to offer modern on-line courses on current topics in the field of computer science, which can be taken by everyone anywhere in the world.

You are Brandenburg’s scientific ambassador. What do you have to say to the world about the advantages and disadvantages of this location?

Fortunately, the location has very interesting and outstanding scientific institutions. In this respect I am not faced with the problem of being an ambassador of a desert; I am the ambassador of a science location with universities and higher learning institutions that is full of life. In terms of the percentage of the total population Potsdam is being regarded as the city with the highest number of scientists in Germany. When I think of the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) or the Fraunhofer or Max Planck institutes in Golm, I have to say, that this makes for a very varied scientific “bouquet” here in the region. Now I have only mentioned Brandenburg's institutions, and, of course, in this context people always also point to Berlin's large scientific institutions, its universities or the Matheon and so on. We should see this region in a wider context as Berlin-Brandenburg, even though those are two different federal states, nonetheless the location, the region, is one. I am also always mentioning the great things that are taking place here and I am trying to get people excited. Fortunately, it is not so difficult to attract visitors, to make them come to the region. There is Berlin’s metropolitan effect – and then, of course, there is the much nicer Potsdam.