Interview with Judith Gerlach

Bavaria's State Minister of Digital Affairs

“An artificial intelligence ecosystem”

Judith Gerlach is Bavaria’s youngest minister – and Germany’s first dedicated minister for digital affairs. At the start of the year, the 37-year old took over as chair of the D16 board, which brings together those German state government inisters, senators and state secretaries with responsibility for digitalization. Her goal: “Germany must achieve a leadership position in the digital world.”

Judith Gerlach, Bavaria’s 37-year-old minister for digital affairs, is the current chair of the D16 board of German ministers with responsibility for the digital domain.
© Foto: Christian Rudnik / BILD
Judith Gerlach, Bavaria's State Minister of Digital Affairs.

Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft: All of these companies are cutting back on staff. “Come to Bavaria” is your resounding call in your current campaign to recruit digital experts. Ms. Gerlach, along with laptops, will you also be providing lederhosen and dirndl skirts to these would-be Bavarians?

We want to bring the smartest IT specialists to Bavaria, and this state can offer them top-class conditions. Its highly innovative research environment and wide range of interesting industry partners – ranging from start-ups and SMEs right up to DAX-listed companies – means job opportunities are plentiful and attractive. And to top it all off, we have an idyllic environment where they can make the most of their free time. Anyone that is seeking an exciting, high-impact role and places importance on security is a perfect fit for the public sector. In its role as an employer, the state offers protection against unlawful dismissal, compensation for overtime and the highly attractive mission of shaping the digital future of a state that is home to 13 million people..

Now that we’re on the subject of the world of work: You once said that you had “the best job in the world.” Unfortunately, that was way back in 2013, when you became the youngest member of the Bavarian state parliament. Ten years later, you have become Germany’s first specialized digital minister. Does this represent a step down, to the second-best job?

My background is in social policy, and during my first legislative period, I served on the social committee. That made its mark on me, as it involves such direct human contact. As a politician, I want to work with and for the people. I still passionately pursue this line today in my role as digital minister. I want to create digital policies that directly improve the status quo for the people of this state. And yes, it’s still the best job in the world, even if it involves different issues.


The curse of the superlative is coming into play here. Let’s risk it one more time: Digitally speaking – where does Bavaria come out on top?

We in Bavaria have the most modern public authorities in Germany. The German Federal Ministry of Interior’s digital ranking officially proves this. Nowhere but Bavaria offers people access to so many public services in digital form. And nowhere else invests so much in the technologies of the future. We are allocating a total of 3.5 billion euros in support to the research field alone here, as part of our High-Tech Agenda. And we are establishing 100 new professorships solely in the area of AI. In the process, we are generating important momentum for establishing an artificial intelligence ecosystem in Bavaria that is unparalleled in Europe. 


Bavaria has created its own quantum computing initiative in the form of Munich Quantum Valley. What are your expectations of this?

In Quantum Valley, Bavaria has created a network that links politics, industry and prestigious scientific partners like the Technical University of Munich, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and the Max Planck Society; it’s the only platform of its kind in Europe. We must remain right at the forefront of this key technology. It’s where the technical conditions are being created for many areas, from the financial sector through to security and defense solutions and energy management. That is why it’s so vital that we play our own part in shaping the progress of quantum technology.


That’s all in the future. The present looks quite different. In 2021, the EU ranked Germany in second-last position in terms of digitalization. What can you do better than Volker Wissing, the German federal minister for digital and transport?

I can’t identify anyone in Berlin whose role it is to look after digital affairs. Mr. Wissing is responsible for mobile communications and broadband expansion, Ms. Faeser takes care of digital administration, and Mr. Habeck is in charge of innovation and start-ups. The areas of jurisdiction are all jumbled up and the responsibilities is completely scattered. No wonder progress has stalled. Here at the Bavarian digital ministry, it’s different. Our cross-departmental drive to digitalize state government means the threads of digital policy can intertwine. This is why I wish there were an independent digital ministry at the federal level too. We really need to speed up the pace of the digital transformation! We are facing stiff international competition from China and the USA. Germany needs a clear strategy and more investment in the digital transformation.


You have just taken over as chair of the D16 board of digital ministers until the summer. How will you spur your colleagues into action?

At D16, we are all striving energetically to achieve a common goal. Germany must achieve a leadership position in the digital world. A modern state is a service-oriented state. We want to ensure that the services available to citizens, companies and organizations are fit for the future, and that they can be used in a secure way.


A year ago in summer, Bavaria passed Germany’s first digital law. Has it paid off?

The Bavarian Digital Law (Bayerisches Digitalgesetz, BayDiG) laid down the first legal foundation of its kind in Germany, and by European standards, it’s quite progressive. It sets out the first legal framework conditions that ensure that everyone can benefit from the digital transformation. It is the foundation of the modern digital state.


While we’re on the subject of laws: the results across Germany are pretty poor. The German Online Access Act (Onlinezugangsgesetz, OZG) stipulated that all administrative services were to be available to citizens in digital form by the end of 2022. The National Regulatory Control Council, the German federal government’s independent advisory body, now calculates that of 575 government services, only 33 have been digitalized. Even the figure for the German Federal Ministry of the Interior has barely made it over 100. Why is it proving so difficult to digitalize public services?

In Bavaria, we have done our homework as thoroughly as possible and completed digitalization of over 98 percent of state services. As previously mentioned, we rank highest among Germany’s federal states. But we still have a long way to go overall. Many services for citizens are not provided by individual states nor the federal government, but rather are largely the responsibility of the municipalities. We have offered incentives in this area, with some success. More and more districts are participating in our financial support initiative, the “Digitales Rathaus Bayern” (digital town hall Bavaria) program. Our state makes centralized online services available through what we call the BayernStore. The municipalities can simply subscribe to these online services for free and make them available to their citizens. We also motivate our municipalities by awarding them the “Digitales Amt” (digital office) label.


You are also approaching this from the other angle. Digital information centers are due to be set up in 30 Bavarian cities and municipalities. The application deadline falls in mid-March. Is there much interest?

We’ve had a huge number of responses! To me, this shows that advice desks are catching on and creating real added value, especially for those who aren’t quite so digitally literate yet. My goal as digital minister is for everybody to benefit from digital progress – regardless of age, gender, income level or background.


We often see you visiting schools to read aloud to children. Isn’t that a somewhat outdated activity for a digital minister?

No, absolutely not! Reading and text comprehension are basic prerequisites for confidently negotiating the digital world. The AI software ChatGPT is currently providing a particularly compelling example of why we should be examining digitally sourced content much more critically. We have to start that process right from childhood. Reading aloud is the best form of training for the little ones.


“The Little King” was one of your reading choices. I’m not quite familiar with it: Is it about Markus Söder?

That must have been a while back. The most recent one I read was “The Little Witch.” And no, that one wasn’t about me.


To return to the chalkface: We’ve just spent the pandemic period calling for increased digitalization in schools. Now we’re debating whether ChatGPT is yet another indicator of the decline of the Western world. What form of education is right for the future?

I don’t agree with using prohibitions and horror scenarios when it comes to innovation. The service won’t disappear just because we ban it from classrooms. We have to learn to deal with it in a reasonable manner. But our education system must never cease to develop further. It’s conceivable that in the future, traditional homework will take a back seat to oral exams, where AI can’t be used as an aid to cheating.


In my circle of colleagues, without naming names, some say schoolchildren have long been using artificial intelligence to do their homework for them. You are, of course, not just digital minister, but also the mother of two children: How dangerous is this trend in reality?

In the future, we will need to use alternative assessment criteria in schools. If AI can pass an exam, then maybe we need to change the exam guidelines. In my view, the schools of the future should focus more on making incisive factual connections and critically scrutinizing information, instead of just reproducing content or presenting on a topic. It’s paramount that we prepare our children to handle such technologies in the future. Someday, learning in school about how to interact appropriately with ChatGPT and similar tools could become as normal as learning your ABCs.


You are working on your own AI strategy. Where does Bavaria want to take this?

We need to do more than just understand the technologies of the future: we also have to shape them. That’s why it was right to invest 3.5 billion euros in research and universities, to establish 100 new AI professorships and to actively ensure the transfer of AI into industry as part of the Bavarian High-Tech Agenda. Because we can’t duck away from this. If we do, the rest of the world will pass us by, while we in Germany only hesitate. Bavaria is on the right road to becoming the most modern digital state in Germany. Our AI strategy also places us in a leadership position in the field of artificial intelligence.


You recently appeared on a TV talk show alongside Pepper the robot. When asked whether artificial intelligence would spark a revolution, your digital colleague simply answered: “Yes!” Where do the greatest opportunities lie?

AI has a multitude of potential applications, such as Bavaria’s SME sector, for example. We provide companies in this state with practical assistance to help make their business processes more effective and economical. Under our AI Transfer Plus program, for example, we work with companies like an agricultural machinery manufacturer whose machines will be able to use AI to recognize precisely whether they are dealing with a cultivated plant or a weed out in the field. This means pesticides can be used more sparingly and targeted more accurately.


AI triggers fears: Some are ill-defined, but some are very specific, like the worries that jobs could become obsolete. Which jobs do you see as being at risk?

In discourse around this subject, horror scenarios that have nothing to do with reality rapidly come into play. The question of how we use the great opportunities presented by new technologies lies in our own hands. It makes sense, for example, to use robots in nursing care. However, that doesn’t mean that from now on, only robots will be used in retirement homes. Nobody wants that! But if robots can support us in some tasks, then care workers, who are in desperately short supply, will have more time for the actual human side.


To finish with a different kind of question, can a digital minister afford to go offline every now and again?

Of course! The best things in life are analog. There’s no app that can replace spending time with family or talking to friends in person.      


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