The faces of the Foundation

The go-to woman for AI

Who actually does what at Humboldt headquarters? Who are the people behind the scenes making sure that everything runs smoothly? This page is devoted to the colleagues at the Humboldt Foundation, their lives at work and beyond. TODAY: MICHELLE HERTE

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  • Recorded by Mareike Ilsemann
Photomontage with portrait of Michelle Herte

Every so often, I allow myself to fall into the clutches of a rogue artificial intelligence. I slip into the role of Chell, a young woman in a research institute being held captive by an AI called GLaDOS. As Chell, I have to overcome all the obstacles and finally destroy the AI’s core system in order to escape – because GLaDOS is a monster AI, programmed to try out new technologies on humans. And it implements this programming resolutely and relentlessly.

The scenario is, of course, pure science fiction. GLaDOS is part of the computer game Portal. The AI is one of those “killing machines” I wrote about in my Master’s thesis in comparative literature. In novels, films and computer games, authors run through the various scenarios of where artificial intelligence could lead to at some point. They often reflect people’s fears. Our biggest nightmare seems to be not being able to control the technology one day.

I myself am a very curious person, a technophile. Nowadays, I am more interested in reality than fiction. I am convinced that humans will discover all the things we can do with AI and utilise this potential, too. I don’t think such developments can be curtailed or constrained. That’s why it’s important to know what point research has really reached.

In my role as Programme Director for AI in the staff unit of the Humboldt Foundation’s Selection Department, the great thing is that I am really close to current research. I am involved in the selection process for the Humboldt Professorship for Artificial Intelligence, read the applications and research proposals, and I follow developments partly with a view to how the Humboldt Foundation could employ AI in the future to assure the quality of its selection processes. But because I also know what AI can’t do yet, I like to immerse myself in the virtual world at home – there is now a sequel to Portal … 

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