What innovation potential does digitization offer?

In a new policy brief, Fraunhofer ISI takes stock of digitization‘s potential from an innovation perspective. It presents selected findings about digitization that have been gathered in numerous research projects at Fraunhofer ISI. The policy brief also addresses the question of what politics, industry and society can do to realize sustainable innovations with the help of digital technologies.

There is no doubt that the corona crisis has pushed the process of digitization in Germany: Whether this concerned new communication tools for working from home, telemedicine or new virtual ways of contacting customers – many applications had to be relocated directly into the digital world during the height of the pandemic. Even if this functioned better than expected overall, the crisis also revealed Germany’s digitization weak spots at the same time.

Against this background, Fraunhofer ISI‘s new policy brief “Digitization from the perspective of innovation” conducts a fact check for a number of areas and indicates where actions are required. The authors use eight questions to address the deficiencies of Germany’s digital infrastructure, the effects of digitization on the energy transition or to explore how to put trustworthy AI systems into practice.

Greater innovation potential through better networks

For instance, the policy brief shows that Germany is lagging behind internationally in expanding its digital infrastructure: Compared to other countries like Spain (90%), Sweden (80%) or France (70%), only just over 13 percent of all households in Germany have the possibility to use fast fiber-optic internet connections (as of November 2020). However, high-performance networks are particularly important from an innovation perspective: They benefit the economy and society, they unleash creative forces and enable a wide variety of digital and social innovations. This is why politics must continue to push broadband expansion to close gaps in infrastructure as quickly as possible, and telecommunications companies must back fiber-optics more consistently.

Artificial intelligence for the energy transition

Given the right infrastructure conditions, digitization and AI systems in particular can help optimize processes – in the course of the energy transition, for instance, as the policy brief shows: In the energy system of the future, which will be characterized by many small solar plants, electricity storage systems and flexible power applications, such as heat pumps or electric vehicles, AI can optimize capacity utilization and match energy supply with demand. AI systems can be used for decision-making when operating and organizing the energy system and planning energy infrastructures. The prerequisite, however, is that sufficient data are available at all times, for instance, from electricity generators or from households concerning their demand.

»Trustworthy AI« as a quality feature of European AI systems

AI systems that function in a data-driven, automated or completely autonomous way raise questions about trustworthiness, privacy and the self-determination of people, which are also addressed in the policy brief. For example, the authors argue for a “trustworthy AI”, where human actions have precedence over machine decisions and the systems do not lead to discrimination against individuals. The “trustworthy AI” label could become a key quality feature of European AI systems if implemented consistently. Computer scientists, engineers, and social scientists should work together in an interdisciplinary way with humanities scholars, consider such issues in the early phases of developing and implementing AI systems and integrate them into the systems. According to the policy brief, such implementation success stories are currently missing, which are needed to demonstrate the advantages of trustworthy AI systems and to motivate imitators.

Dr. Bernd Beckert, who coordinates the topic of artificial intelligence at Fraunhofer ISI, has this to say about the policy brief: "The topic of ‘trustworthy AI’ clearly shows the cross-cutting nature of digitization: this affects almost every area of life and work and harbors enormous potentials for change. We should not just let digitization happen to us, but actively shape it and use it to realize a sustainable world.”

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.

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