Computer systems increasingly influence our lives. They not only form the basis for practically all business processes, but for a long time have also played a significant role in science and technology and over the last decade, impressively so in daily life and entertainment. Today, digital information processing is indispensable for practically every area of life. In this way, computer science is a determining social factor.
In addition, computers as well as the related software and networks – primarily the global internet – are the most complex structures ever created by the hand of man. Indeed, hardware, and to a far greater extent software, are so complex that they can no longer be understood in all their detail.
This makes computer systems a powerful and mysterious tool. Both the capabilities and the secrets of computer systems demand their scientific research.
The Max Planck Society has adopted this conviction and founded the Max Planck Institute for Computer Science in 1990. The institute is subdivided into five departments and currently accommodates approximately 200 scientists. The central research object of the institute is algorithms. An algorithm is a calculation specification – a precise command string for a computer on how it should calculate something. In the department “Algorithms and Complexity” (Prof. Dr. Kurt Mehlhorn) and the research group “Automation of Logic” (Prof. Dr. Christoph Weidenbach), resources such as, for example, the computing time and disk space that an algorithm needs for its calculation, are examined.
Here, not only new algorithms are developed that minimize the demand for computing time and disk space and thus have direct and highly-practical relevance, but also basic limits of this procedure are highlighted: How much computing time/disk space is generally necessary for a calculation? How can the correct functioning of a programme already be automatically verified in its run-up?
The department “Computer Graphics” (Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Seidel) dedicates itself to computers as instruments for the representation of pictures and films. It thus takes into account that increasingly a computer does not manifest itself as an intermediary of numbers and text, but above all of pictures and multimedia data.
Also here, the fundamental questions are raised: What is basically doable? And: What resources are required? In this way, a computer is not only used as a producer of pictures, but it should (with the help of suitable algorithms) also “understand” pictures – a duty, which equally presents a great scientific challenge.
The department “Computational Biology and Applied Algorithmics” (Prof. Dr. Thomas Lengauer) takes into account that computers have attained fundamental significance over the past few years in the area of life sciences, particularly for the interpretation of biological data. Computers are an essential instrument of modern biology and medicine. The understanding of biological processes on a molecular level is not possible without computers, as, on the one hand, immense amounts of data must be processed in modern biology and, on the other, because the complexity of biochemical interactions in living organisms makes the study of these cycles pointless without the help of a computer.
Bioinformatic methods are thus a basic element of modern research for the diagnosis and therapy of disease.
Finally, the department “Databases and Information Systems” (Prof. Dr. Gerhard Weikum) particularly dedicates itself to the themes of division, organization and search of data in large computer networks such as the internet.
In this way, aspects of the effective search for information in networks (search engines like Google are appropriate instruments), the reliability of methods in case parts of the network are not accessible, as well as the effective dispensation of computing duties to computing performances as available in the network (for example in peer-to-peer systems) have priority. The practical uses of this research is quite clear: Who has not at some stage wanted to search for pictures with graphic rather than text information or even with difficult queries from the submachine indeed had relevant entries presented first.
The aim of the Max Planck Institute for Computer Science is to achieve an effect equally through scientific results, software and development of the academic next generation.
The institute manages an active promotion programme for doctorate students and post-doctorate students. This begins with taking up the doctorate at the “International Max Planck Research School for Computer Science” and allows for exchange with cutting-edge institutions around the world after graduation from the doctorate, via international co-operation agreements such as the “Max Planck Center for Visual Computing and Communication” (post-doc programme with Stanford University) and the participation in international research projects. In result, the young scientists of the institute received more than 20 offers of a professorship in- and outside of the country.
Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Kurt Mehlhorn studied computer science and mathematics at TU Munich and at Cornell University in Ithaca (USA). He has been teaching informatics at Saarland University since 1990 and has acted as director at the Max Planck Institute for Computer Science in Saarbrücken since 1990. Among other things, he belongs to the Senate of the Max Planck Society and is a member of the Leopoldina Academy.