Dependability is a big topic in Kay Römer’s life. In TU Graz’s lead research project – ‘Dependable Internet of Things in Adverse Environments’ – he is not working on new smart applications, but rather on the ability to depend on the presently available ones.
News+Stories: You coordinate the TU Graz lead project ‘Dependable Internet of Things in Adverse Environments’. What exactly is this project about?
Kay Römer: The topic we are looking at in the project is the expansion of the Internet as we know it. Everyday objects are being fitted out more and more with small computers which connect them to the internet. One of the original applications is the ‘smart home’, which allows me to monitor whether my home is warm or cold. But currently the trend is towards quite critical applications. These could be health parameters, which are being monitored, or factories in which tools and machines are connected to each other. They can also range to cars which communicate with each other so that they are able to drive in a column independently. If something breaks down in this situation, bad things can happen. That’s why we need systems we can depend on. That’s the background. And there’s an awful lot of work to do because we’re talking about a global phenomenon of more than 50 billion smart objects in such fields as health, transport and production which are supposed to be integrated in the Internet of things by 2020.
There’s an awful lot of work to do because we’re talking about a global phenomenon of more than 50 billion smart objects in such fields as health, transport and production.
In view of this broad application, isn’t it difficult to formulate a project in these terms?
Kay Römer: Exactly. You can imagine it a bit like a chain. If I pull it, then the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And this is similar to the systems that we are dealing with. There is the wireless communication between the devices, but also the actual computing which takes place on the computers, and then there are control tasks, when you want to keep a vehicle automatically in lane. I have to look at all the operations of a system and think deeply about how to design it. Making all the components of a system reliable demands appropriate specialist knowledge in each of the respective fields. In the project, we are combining the subject areas of ten colleagues from various university institutes in order to consider all the security-critical aspects – so that each link in the chain is suitably strengthened.
So cooperation in the different disciplines is of fundamental importance?
Kay Römer: Yes, it’s fundamental, because I alone can only look at one small section of such systems. My topic, for example, is wirelessly networked embedded systems – but like I said, that’s just one link in the chain.
Privately, do you have a household with lots of smart, intelligent systems?
Kay Römer: Actually, it’s the other way round with me. I’m very cautious about these technologies. Probably because I know that they have snags here and there.
How could the results from the lead project affect my life?
Kay Römer: The Internet of things is no longer hypothetical, it’s already happening. It starts with internet radios. One or the other person has perhaps a nest thermostat (NB: a thermostat which controls the temperature in the living area by itself), or a home automation solution. We’re in the middle of a trend. Our objective is not to create new functions, but rather to ensure that the whole thing doesn’t fall on our heads. I sometimes take the example of the power grid as an analogy. As long as it works and electricity keeps coming out of the socket, everyone is happy. But when there’s a power cut, everything falls to pieces. It’s exactly the same with the Internet of things. As long as it works, everyone is happy and content. But when it doesn’t work any more, our world falls to bits. Our aim is to prevent exactly that from happening.
If I’ve committed myself to something, I always follow through.
To what extent does dependability play a role in your own life as a principle?
Kay Römer: If I’ve committed myself to something, I always follow through. I do it as best I can and punctually. For me, it includes qualities such as confidentiality and integrity, and availability – which is an important aspect of dependability – this is a matter close to my heart.
Do you keep your word?
Kay Römer: I keep my word.
Your research projects are funded, for example, by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the European Commission, industrial partners and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Science. Which of your qualities makes you so successful?
The skill consists in thinking about what the desires and expectations of the other person are and to address these quite precisely.
Kay Römer: One good idea is the basic requirement to get an application through. It’s not enough just to have an idea and to push it through. Today, when you submit an application at the European level, you only have a five per cent chance that it’ll be accepted. The funding agencies consider very carefully what the relevant research topics are. The skill consists in thinking about what the desires and expectations of the other person are and to address these quite precisely. The crucial prerequisite for this is empathy and sensitivity. On top of this, a good network of contacts and people is also important. In many projects, a consortium – a team of researchers – has to be set up. The right people are not only those who have a good reputation, but also people with whom you can work well and reliably.
Has your goal always been to be successful in university research?
Kay Römer: My time in Frankfurt shaped me. When I was there as a student project team member and later as a diploma student, I found a good mentor. He was a doctoral student and research assistant himself. He led me by the hand and introduced me to this world, and supported and motivated me. From this time on I knew I wanted to pursue it. What I was not conscious of was how circuitous and difficult such a career is. You have to be prepared in yourself to change your employer three or four times before arriving at a place where you want to stay.
After a certain stage on the career ladder, researchers are actually girl (or boy) Fridays.
What brought you to where you are today?
Kay Römer: The most important thing was curiosity. I know many scientists who have remained a bit of a child. I mean this in the positive sense of having fun with their research. As a child I was always taking things apart because I wanted to know how they worked. I often got into trouble with my father for this. This curiosity to understand the workings of things and then to find solutions which are always better than what has gone before – this is a fundamental quality. The second is the ability to multitask. After a certain stage on the career ladder, researchers are actually girl (or boy) Fridays. In addition to research and teaching, there are many administrative activities – on the one hand, academic self-administration, but also cultivating international contacts and other things. I just can’t tell you how many tasks I have to do. Successfully managing this is a challenge.
So, do you think a career can be planned with the right prerequisites?
Kay Römer: For a long time now, I’ve been occupying myself with everyday objects embedded in networked systems. At the time I gained my doctorate at ETH Zürich, this topic was just starting to take off and so I had the right topic in the right place at the right time – and a very well-connected environment. When all the necessary prerequisites come together, I call that luck. And at the same time you need curiosity and perseverance.
What do you work towards professionally most intensively?
Kay Römer: Recently I was very much occupied with the preparation for the interim evaluation of the second phase of the TU Graz lead project. In the long term, it’s about positioning the things we do at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) and in Styria even better at an international level. When I first came to Graz, I noticed something interesting. I didn’t know the environment and was pleasantly surprised about all the things happening here. In many areas, we don’t have to hide ourselves behind a ETH Zürich – regarding both our administrative structures and research. The corporate environment is also really great and dynamic. A lot of things are going on. It’s not for nothing that Styria is the European region where, measured by its size, there is the most investment in R&D. Presenting this potential and the excellent research to the outside world is a matter close to my heart. I can’t do this alone, I have to do this in larger groups and networks – such as in the lead project, and in the Field of Expertise Information, Communication & Computing. That’s why a big share of my working time and my commitment goes into larger cooperations beyond TU Graz
Kay Uwe Römer spent his early youth near Dresden, studied at Goethe University in Frankfurt-on-Main, and found his way to TU Graz after stop-offs at ETH Zürich and the University of Lübeck. The internationally recognised expert in the field of networked embedded systems has headed the Institute of Technical Informatics at TU Graz since 2013. He currently coordinates the Field of Expertise Information, Communication & Computing, one of five Fields of Expertise of TU Graz. Together with partners from research and industry, he is developing products and production systems of the future in the COMET competence centre Pro²Future. In addition, he supervises a research group at Complexity Science Hub Vienna which is closely connected to the Institute of Technical Informatics. The research group analyses complex systems, such as banking and finance and industry. The objective is to increase the dependability of these systems and prevent breakdowns, such as a financial crash or collapses of industrial supply chains.