Interview to Ralf Steinmetz, President of the Board of IMDEA Networks
18 February 2009
Interviewer: Thank you for granting us this interview and for sharing your thoughts about the issues currently surrounding global communications. Since 1996, you have headed the Department of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at the Technische Universität Darmstadt (Darmstadt, Germany) as well as the Department of Computer Science, where you are also Managing Director of the Multimedia Communications Laboratory (KOM). You are also Chairman of the Board of IMDEA Networks, the Madrid Institute for Advanced Networks Studies (Instituto Madrileño de Estudios Avanzados en Networks). In your own words, what are the Institute’s main objectives and scientific challenges? Should the Institute follow a specific research model in order to secure these objectives?
RS: IMDEA Networks aims to become one of the world leaders in the future of wireless mobile Internet, helping both Madrid and Spain to play a role in the ensuing technological transfer and the economic and social development arising from this transfer. If we are able to be highly attractive, from a scientific standpoint, in this area, which will be – and which already is – a key area for the future, we will be able to seize opportunities to help create companies powered by the “brains” that come to research in Madrid. This will help, at least in the region, to establish new services and applications. Even if such companies are not directly related with the communications sector per se but apply communications to another sector, such as transport or logistics, they could put the advances into practice and, with this foundation and vision, use them to create something within a special area of application in the future.
Interviewer: Do you have any specific ideas for the IMDEA Networks research model?
RS: I believe it must be affiliated with a university in the long term, as it currently is. This is essential, given that many of the people we wish to attract are university students, and we can provide them with a great deal of support in terms of equipment and access to research. Yet this endeavour needs more than just theory. There must be a transfer of knowledge, a creation of companies, a real-world impact. I find this idea of “real-world impact” very interesting. Another key factor would be the renowned researchers that IMDEA Networks is able to attract, such as Nick Maxemchuk, Jon Crowcroft and Nicolas Georganas, who have collaborated or are currently collaborating with the Institute. These researchers will tell the world where they are working and what they are doing, which will in turn bring in a greater number of prestigious scientific researchers. This is something we should reinforce even more in the future.
Interviewer: Why did you decide to get involved in this project?
RS: On a personal level, I agree strongly with what Arturo Azcorra [Director of IMDEA Networks] had done in past European Union projects, and I honestly admire the determination and tenacity with which he is managing to build IMDEA Networks. I also feel an affinity with the Spanish culture and language, and I like to have strong ties with Madrid. My position as Chairman of the Board provides me this opportunity.
On a professional level, I think it would be extraordinary if the Institute could be created with the base financing of the regional government, at a time when everyone is trying to work with third-party funding only. Perhaps the key to future success is precisely a research institute that is not based on third-party funding, but rather one that is created as a non-profit foundation. This makes IMDEA Networks a very attractive initiative that is well positioned and that has appeared at precisely the right time.
Interviewer: What experiences led you to pursue a career in science?
RS: There are two answers to that question. The first is that I am one of those people that likes to explore and to create, and science allows me to do both things. The second is that, thanks to the career path I have followed so far in research, I am somewhat free to define what I want to do: head up an Institute, grow professionally one direction or another, etc. I have a great deal of freedom and I truly enjoy being in this type of creative environment.
Interviewer: What is the best part of your work; that is, that brings you the most satisfaction? And, conversely, what is the least positive aspect of your job?
RS: OK, the pros and the cons: One aspect that is clearly on the pros side is what the students do after they complete their doctorates. If they are successful, if they have a good professional career, then I am truly satisfied. If they innovate, if they obtain professorships or secure prominent positions in industry, if their achievements influence a research area, then I am extremely happy.
Note that here I refer to both university students and to doctoral students. The important thing is the person: the people we educate, the people we teach, the people we help throughout the different stages of their careers as students, graduates, masters or diploma seekers, doctoral candidates or post-doctorate researchers. With respect to this latter category, I find it highly satisfying to collaborate in their creative processes whenever they need it throughout their careers.
Another positive aspect of my work is undoubtedly the freedom to create, as I mentioned earlier.
With respect to the less positive aspects, I would cite the type of bureaucracy we encounter – at least in German universities – in a certain types of environment where some people, in my opinion, do not act on initiatives fast enough. I loathe this type of bureaucracy.
Interviewer: What personal and professional qualities are important for researchers/scientists to have in your area of research?
RS: Firstly, perseverance to fight to secure a specific objective, without giving up along the way. We should never give up. Secondly, it is naturally important to listen to what others have to say. Many researchers prefer to listen to themselves talk, but there is a lot to be said for listening, working with others, and working within contact networks. Thirdly, something I consider to be fundamental but which many scientists do not possess, at least in Europe, is the ability to sell yourself and your work when necessary. Many people still think, “All right, I will design a type of code or I will build something efficient, but I don’t have to go out and talk about it.” However, you do have to get the word out; you have to perform some type of “self” public relations, a way of placing your creation where it rightly belongs. This is very important in order to measure success of the project.
Interviewer: What can you tell us about Internet, now that it has become a truly global phenomenon?
RS: Internet itself was designed in the 60s and 70s with certain intentions that at that particular time were well thought out. There was no mobility and no security issues back then. However, the world of communications has progressed at the speed of light. Desktop computers gave way to laptops. There is no longer a single computer serving many people, nor even a single computer serving a single person. We now have a multitude of computers for each person. With respect to quality of service: if we want to communicate something, we want to do it with a certain degree of quality. This is vital. Consequently, security and durability have become key issues. The web community has also changed, given that the service is no longer provided by a central station, but by virtually anyone. An example of this is seen in Google Maps.
Although the Internet environment has changed significantly since its creation, Internet itself retains its fundamental aspects, albeit with a multitude of “add-ons.” Internet plus one “add-on” is doable, even if it is a challenge. If you add two add-ons, the system becomes delicate, but you can still handle it. When you have three or even more add-ons, Internet has to perform somersaults to keep up. Internet functions this way, but not how it should. There should be a radical change at some point. I think this might take the form of a new network, a different network. How would such a network be structured to respond to our expectations? To start with, it would be simpler. Undoubtedly, the switchover would be complex.
Interviewer: If you could go back in time and change three aspects of the implementation of Internet, what would they be?
RS: I would have included quality, security and reliability as built-in aspects, and not something we’ve added a posteriori.