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University of Tübingen team recognised for science communication on artificial intelligence

10 May 2024
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This year’s Communicator Award presented by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and Stifterverband went to an interdisciplinary research team at the University of Tübingen: a computer scientist and two cultural scientists received a 50,000-euro award in recognition of their outstanding and diverse science communication in developing and implementing the exhibition Cyber and the City: Artificial Intelligence Moves Tübingen, a model for how to engage in dialogue on other controversial topics relating to science and technology.
Thomas Thiemeyer, Ulrike von Luxburg, Guido Szymanska and Tim Schaffarczik
Copyright: University of Tübingen / Friedhelm Albrecht

Ulrike von Luxburg, Professor for the Theory of Machine Learning at the University of Tübingen, Tim Schaffarczik and Thomas Thiemeyer, doctoral researcher and Professor at the Institute of Historical and Cultural Anthropology, respectively, are behind the exhibition displayed at the Tübingen City Museum and that attracted tens of thousands of visitors between February and December last year. Conceived and realised in an interdisciplinary manner and together with the exhibition's curator, the team also included over 30 students of Historical and Cultural Anthropology and Tübingen’s Machine Learning master's programme:

The exhibition was so convincing because we brought in and considered different perspectives on the topic from the very beginning. The students with their diverse backgrounds, opinions and approaches and the many years of experience of the curator of the City Museum, Guido Szymanska, in turning abstract ideas into concrete exhibits made the show so successful,” said Professor von Luxburg.

A platform with a common language to address AI

Chaired by DFG Vice President Professor Dr. Johannes Grave and made up of science journalists as well as communication and PR experts, the jury said in its decision that the “Cyber and the City” team had transported the abstract and controversial topic of artificial intelligence into the world of people’s day-to-day lives and experience, while also opening up a space for dialogue that allowed negotiation of starkly differing points of view and interests.

The team, said the jury, engaged in a productive interdisciplinary collaboration between computer science and historical and cultural anthropology to create the exhibition, complete with an accompanying programme. Students of the two disciplines did the groundwork for the exhibition and the other communication channels, involving interest groups, citizens, activists and decision-makers in both conception and implementation.

According to the Communicator Award jury, the result was a communication platform that finds a common language to address the challenges and opportunities of artificial intelligence while allowing both supporters and sceptics of AI to have their say. An extensive accompanying programme was developed which enabled exhibition participants to organise their own events. The latter included a “Retro Gaming Night meets AI” and also a panel discussion entitled “Who controls AI?”, organised in cooperation with broadcaster SWR.

Local grounding: a formula for success

The Communicator Award jury emphasised that one vital element of the project was the fact that communication was locally oriented: despite being something that takes effect on a global scale while also being an issue that was difficult for most people to grasp, AI was negotiated based on concrete examples, informed by impassioned debate in the city and involving local actors. What is more, the whole thing did not take place in digital forums but in direct dialogue between the participants. The jury said that this demonstrated how successful the team had been in exploring a tough issue in a light, humorous way while still maintaining objectivity and a keen sense of judgement.

All in all, the jury saw the team’s work as a fine example of dialogue-based science communication that went well beyond the location and the specific topic. According to the jury, this was an especially encouraging project in the light of a contemporary dialogue culture which barely permitted constructive exchange between different arguments and standpoints.

40,000 people visiting the exhibition 

From February to early December 2023, the exhibition attracted approximately 40,000 visitors from different age groups – in a touristic city with a population of around 90,000. Taken as a whole, the exhibition and accompanying programme established a framework for dialogue that provided an objective basis for the highly controversial debate surrounding artificial intelligence in Tübingen without neglecting emotions and standpoints.

The Communicator Award has been awarded every year since 2000 and is regarded as Germany’s most important prize of its kind. The award goes to researchers who are particularly creative in their science communication, taking new, courageous paths and addressing their target groups in suitable and effective ways. They must also recognise the societal dimension of their research and contribute their knowledge to public debate, opinion-forming and decision-making processes. The prize money supports the recipient’s public engagement activities and enables them to implement new projects.

"Visit" the exhibition by reading the original, German story.