Dr. Yorck Hesselbarth © Matthias Lehna/ Bundeswehr

20 October 2023

"The Cyber Innovation Hub is the first military digital innovation unit in Europe."

The Cyber Innovation Hub of the Bundeswehr (CIHBw) in the heart of Berlin is of immense significance when it comes to steering the evolving field of artificial intelligence (AI) and digital innovations. How can we best harness the potential of AI to strengthen national security and deploy modern innovations for defense capability? This question underscores the purpose of the hub, which among other things, focuses on AI-driven innovations. Berlin's central location facilitates collaboration with top-tier academic institutions, technology startups, and government agencies, fostering a lively ecosystem for AI research and development. This strategic center is committed to advancing AI technologies that enhance the capabilities of the Bundeswehr, enabling proactive defense measures and informed decisions. By bringing together AI expertise and military applications, the hub not only boosts national security but also contributes to positioning Germany as a leading country in AI-supported innovation on the global stage. For detailed insights, we conducted an interview with 1st Lt. Dr. Yorck Hesselbarth, Lead Artificial Intelligence and Senior Manager Innovation at the CIHBw.

What is the mission of the Cyber Innovation Hub?
The CIHBw is the Do-Tank of the German armed forces and the first digital innovation unit of a German ministry. It was founded in March 2017 to act as a "fast dinghy" to support the digital transformation of the Bundeswehr and to act as an interface between the Bundeswehr and the startup ecosystem. The CIHBw's vision of "Empowering Innovation in Defence" has taken on a new urgency against the background of the Russian attack on Ukraine.

Were there role models for the hub?
Yes, there were. The hub role models were innovation units in the private sector, the Israeli and the U.S. armed forces. The Cyber Innovation Hub is the first military digital innovation unit in Europe and has since become a role model itself - namely for comparable units in other German federal ministries and agencies. For example, for the Health Innovation Hub of the Federal Ministry of Health.

Could you give us some examples of technologies or solutions that have been developed or advanced thanks to the activities of the Cyber Innovation Hub?
There are a few, we are currently at a total of over 160 projects and innovation activities that have been initiated since the Hub was established. For example, we currently have an innovation project in the area of propaganda defense and combating disinformation. With the help of artificial intelligence, freely available information such as text, images and video is captured and analyzed. In this way, military situation pictures for foreign missions, an important component for decision-making on the ground, are significantly enriched and improved. This has been a very relevant topic not only since Russia invaded Ukraine. In another project, large amounts of internal data were analyzed with the help of language models and thus made quickly and easily usable for soldiers. These are just two examples of how we collaborate with technology-based startups that offer good solutions and bring them to bear in the Bundeswehr context.

What developments and application scenarios do you find most exciting in the technology field of AI at the moment?
From my point of view, we will of course see a lot in the area of language models in the coming period. The developments here are so rapid and enormous that you can hardly keep up. Above all, the individualization of the basic models for individual companies or organizations will certainly be exciting. We are then talking about a tool that can provide well-founded answers to complex questions based on generally available global knowledge and specific knowledge from an industry or an organization. It will still require a watchful eye from people to contextualize the answers, but development will certainly improve things. This brings me to a second point: Currently, I see many models that are primarily in one discipline, for example, speech or images. But technology with multimodal approaches like speech, images or even sensor data is getting better and better. Ultimately, the goal is to understand the world through AI-based approaches. And people understand things better when they can see and hear at the same time. Education and training will also be interesting in the future, especially human-computer interaction. Especially in connection with augmented reality and computer vision, a lot is already possible in industry at the moment, which could also be interesting in the public sector. This can basically be anything from virtual assistants to smart glasses. However, I also believe that developers still have to put a lot of work into aspects such as the comprehensibility and reliability of models, because in the end it depends on the extent to which people can trust the output of whatever kind.

Why was the Cyber Innovation Hub located in Berlin?
I think there are many reasons that speak for Berlin as a location. In the field of innovation, the ecosystem approach is very promising, in which different players from business, science and politics, for example, are brought together on one topic. The field of artificial intelligence in particular benefits greatly from this. Ultimately, it's like a team sport in which every discipline has its place. Especially with its strong connection to the Bundeswehr, Berlin is of course also relevant as a political center, because in addition to many startups, important political decision-makers are also located here. Just recently, there was a major event as part of the Munich Security Conference's “Zeitenwende on tour”-project, which took place at the Cyber Innovation Hub.

How do you see your role in the capital region's AI and tech ecosystem?
From my point of view, we are the link between the buzzing startups with their interesting solutions and the Bundeswehr as an important part of a modern democracy. In the Cyber Innovation Hub, the startup world meets the public administration with all its opportunities and challenges. Here we want to implement ideas and not just think about them theoretically.

For startups, the defense sector with its high technological requirements, long development cycles and sometimes non-transparent processes has not always been attractive in the past. That's changing a lot right now, because even in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it's more than ever about digital innovation, technological resilience and a modern state. So we offer a concrete point of contact with different expertise on all kinds of technologies, but also more unconventional approaches like intrapreneurship. Especially in the field of AI, there are numerous use cases and the potential is enormous. I believe the Hub makes an important contribution here as a networker, sparring partner and enabler to unite the different worlds and focus on the commonalities rather than the differences. Because in the end, everyone benefits.

Thank you very much for taking the time to give us this insightful interview.