Seeing AI to AI: NVIDIA Deepens Ties with Top Research Center

Company becomes a shareholder in Germany's DFKI, one of world’s largest research centers dedicated to AI.
by Stefan Kraemer

Andreas Dengel wants to get AI into more people’s hands while he continues to advance the technology.

Sharing that mission and a history of close ties, NVIDIA just joined him and his roughly 1,000 colleagues as a shareholder in the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI).

“A study last week said many companies are collecting data, but they don’t know what to do with it. We can help them join an increasingly data-driven economy,” said Dengel. He serves as head of DFKI’s site in Kaiserslautern in southwest Germany, a member of DFKI’s management board and the scientific director of its smart data and knowledge services group.

One company is already testing a prototype AI sandbox and catalog DFKI built to let users try deep learning. The catalog includes 35 top neural networks for imaging with audio and video models on the way, targeting commercial use next year.

“Removing the boundaries for companies who want to use AI is very important,” said Dengel.

Advancing AI in Germany and Beyond

While DFKI spreads AI’s use, it also aims to advance the technology. The research institute is part of a group making a proposal for a German national supercomputing center focused on AI. A decision is expected later this year on the center, expected to have a budget of up to $16 million a year.

The effort comes amid a pan-European drive to beef up AI research. In mid-March, the European Commission granted a new AI research alliance about $54 million. It’s seen as a downpayment on the region’s future investments in AI.

In this environment, DFKI has no shortage of ambitions. One of its research teams is wrestling with the grand challenge of explainable AI, understanding how deep learning gets its amazing results.

A member of the team presented a paper in June 2018 that won an award from NVIDIA’s founder and CEO Jensen Huang. The paper described a way one neural network can monitor another to understand and optimize its processes.

The work put some light on how deep learning gets its impressive results. But there’s much more to be done as the types of neural networks and datasets proliferate.

“Experts who depend on AI systems should be able to visualize or explain their processes. That’s especially critical for applications on finance and healthcare,” Dengel said.

It’s one of some 250 projects across 20 departments at DFKI, one of the world’s largest AI research centers.

Among other projects, one team is helping the German federal bank apply AI. Another conducts 600-hour tests of car engines, making predictions with AI based on the results. Yet another uses GPUs to analyze high-resolution satellite images, helping coordinate disaster relief efforts.

17 Petaflops of GPU Compute and Growing

DFKI computer rooms pack an estimated 17 petaflops of GPU computing power with multiple NVIDIA DGX systems. They include what was the first DGX-2 in Europe, all linked on Mellanox InfiniBand switches.

It’s a lot of horsepower, but not enough to meet rising demands. The group spun up a climate modeling application two months ago, satellites are “growing exponentially” for imaging applications. And DFKI has a new collaboration with the European Space Agency that will spawn multiple projects.

“We are at the limit of our systems’ use. Our goal is to expand in a big way. We want to provide infrastructure that’s a platform for both the German and the broader European industry,” said Dengel.

“Our experience has shown that by putting apps on NVIDIA GPU clusters companies better understand what GPU acceleration can do for them,” he added.

In the wake of the shareholder agreement, DFKI and NVIDIA are discussing plans for collaborating on software projects. It’s another step in deepening ties at many levels.

The two groups also sometimes share talented people. A former DFKI professor is now an NVIDIA architect, and a handful of DFKI grad students are just back from a sabbatical working with NVIDIA.