For Florian Dörfler, control engineering is the cornerstone of all automation. When away from work, however, he prefers to experience nature without feedback loops.
Your field of expertise is control engineering. Where might we encounter this in everyday life?
Control engineering is based on feedback between the physical world and the world of algorithms. Whether we realise it or not, automation via feedback loops is part of our daily lives. It’s behind cruise-control systems in cars, for example, the tech in our household appliances, and the systems used to cushion vibrations in bridges.
Does control engineering play a role in fake news?
There are feedback loops in social systems as well. By building mathematical models based on huge amounts of data, we can validate some of the classic hypotheses in sociology - to show, for example, how fake news spreads across social media channels.
ETH now offers a joint degree programme with Ashesi University. What inspired you to teach in Africa?
I wanted to experience a new culture and help educate people in Ghana. And I was also interested to learn from students and colleagues there. Students in Ghana arrive with less prior knowledge, but they are extremely motivated and hungry to learn. I ended up setting the same exam there as I would at ETH. And guess who got the best results!
Does your work creep into your private life - for example, with thoughts of smart homes and autonomous vehicles?
I spend enough time thinking about futuristic technologies when I’m at work! What I want when I’m not working is a bit of variety. I often feel a need to get away from our hectic, connected, technologised world! What I like most of all is to head way up into the mountains, just with friends, or to spend time in the countryside with my family.
Which development will have the greatest impact over the next few years?
Automation was originally a very analogue field, but today’s problems demand a digital and algorithmic approach. Real-time optimisation and machine learning are becoming more and more important across every field of application. At the same time, new developments such as quantum technology will also require new approaches in automation technology. Exciting times!