How lasers are tracing the path to humanity`s future

Interview with Dr. Peter Leibinger, CTO of TRUMPF Group.

Dr. Peter Leibinger is CTO of TRUMPF Group – a world leader in industrial-use laser technology. He shares his thoughts on what makes lasers special, their role in developing AI, and why there’s reason to be optimistic about humanity’s future.

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Interview with Dr. Peter Leibinger, CTO of TRUMPF Group*

Technology can be both good and bad – do you agree?

It seems that sometimes in society, technology is seen as the cause of our problems.

But at the same time, I think we have to acknowledge that if we are not willing to live in a world-wide dictatorship – and instead choose to have a free world where it’s an individual decision of how I live my life – then the only solution is technology. If we continue as we are now, with the freedom that we love and the methods that we use today, we will destroy our planet. So if we don’t want to change the freedom part, we have to change the methods. And the solution is technology.

Why is the laser so important for the world?

What’s most fascinating about lasers is that they exist only here on earth. Comparable phenomena in the field of physics – such as radio waves, for example – can be found anywhere in the universe. But the laser is truly a human invention.

Laser light was first described by Albert Einstein in 1917, and then realized in an application in 1964. Since then, we have used laser technology in everything from modern telecommunications to extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography in the medical field. Whether making sheet-metal parts, welding pacemakers, or building batteries for modern electric vehicles – none of this would be possible without the laser.

But at the same time, we’ve only slightly opened the door to the possibilities of the laser. There is a huge room behind the door that we haven’t explored yet.

We’ve only slightly opened the door to the possibilities of the laser. There is a huge room behind the door that we haven’t explored yet.

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Where does your team find inspiration for the laser applications you develop?

As TRUMPF has such a broad portfolio of lasers and very deep knowledge of laser applications, new ideas come to us all the time from our customers. To be honest, we don’t need to have a whole lot of imagination – it’s our customers who come to us with questions about what is possible.

We would never have thought of EUV lithography ourselves, for example. It came about when our customers asked us to solve a specific problem. It was much the same story with the laser becoming the ideal tool for producing modern car batteries. The customer drove the application.

This happens every day in our labs. The universal usability of the laser and the endless possibilities of laser applications are what drive the growth of TRUMPF. For me, as someone with an entrepreneurial mindset, the laser is a wonderful business development machine.

You’ve mentioned EUV lithography a couple of times – why is it so important?

Lithography is a printing process invented in the late 1700s. Today, we use it in many applications, one of which is manufacturing semiconductors.

Until EUV lithography was developed, we used so-called 193 nanometer lithography. Without going too much into the technical details, what this essentially means is that we can now use light of a shorter wavelength to generate a structure on a wafer.

To understand why this is relevant, we need to look at a productivity driver the world has been enjoying for the past 50 years: Moore’s Law. Every two years or so, the computing and storage power of semiconductors has doubled. We have taken this law for granted since the 1970s, and it has made humanity increasingly productive during that time. But Moore’s Law would now come to a halt if our industry had not successfully developed EUV lithography. Without this technology, the world as we know it – with new and more powerful computers every two years – would have come to an end.

So if we don’t want to change the freedom part, we have to change the methods and the solution is technology.

What do you see as being the next great leap forward in computing?

I am certain that the world of the future will be heavily influenced by quantum sensors. These are special devices that will become hyper present in our everyday lives.

For example, it’s foreseeable that our mobile phones will have such sensors in them, allowing us to communicate in a different manner to what we’re used to – possibly by thought. Quantum sensors will also improve things like autonomous driving, as we’ll be able to build gyroscopes that are far more sensitive than what we have today.

For me, one of the most fascinating ideas with these sensors is how they hold promise to simplify diagnostics in medicine. For instance, you could have the capability to perform a Magnetic Resonance Tomography scan – an MRT – using your own smartphone. Or at least every doctor could have an MRT that costs a few thousand euros to buy. So if I feel like I have a sprained ankle, I can just go and get it checked. It’s a procedure that could even be done at the supermarket. I know this sounds crazy, but it is feasible.

From your perspective, what should guide the design of these new tools and products?

A product should always have an inherent quality – a ruggedness, or a beauty – but most importantly, it should also be meaningful. It needs to have something good built into it.

If I think again of EUV lithography, it’s a fascinating science project and a highly interesting proposition. But it’s also meaningful to be at the core of a team that enables Moore’s Law to continue, so that new devices can be invented that will enhance our everyday lives. This is meaningful in itself.

It’s foreseeable that our mobile devices will have such sensors (quantum sensors) in them. –And these will be sensors that will enable us to communicate with these devices, possibly through thought.

How do you see artificial intelligence fitting into the picture?

I’m convinced that once we better understand how the human brain works, we will no longer think that it can be replaced by artificial intelligence. Quantum sensors will give us this understanding, as they will enable us to monitor thinking.

From a scientific standpoint this is fascinating, but of course it is also scary and the potential for misuse is immediately evident. But such is the case with every new technology. Ever since the first rock was used as a tool, it could also be used as a weapon.

What can we do to guard against such misuse?

I think what offers the greatest potential for humanity is education. If we succeed in educating people – not only in the sense of bringing knowledge, but also teaching ethics – then humanity has huge potential.

According to the fascinating book Humankind by the historian Rutger Bregman, humans are kind. We are not, as the English philosopher John Locke said, essentially evil but civilization makes us good. Like Bregman, I am absolutely convinced that humans are good by nature and that in the end we are kind.

There is no other species in the world that communicates like we do, that feels a sense of shame and blushes when embarrassed, for example. If we develop education in such a way as to not only transport knowledge but also transmit this ethical message, then I see a wonderful future for humanity.

If we succeed in educating, not only in the sense of, bringing knowledge to the people, but also bringing ethics to the people – We have a huge potential.

About TRUMPF Group

The TRUMPF Group from Germany is one of the world's leading manufacturers of machine tools, laser technology, and electronics for industrial applications. The company is family-owned and was founded in 1923. Today, TRUMPF employs more than 14,000 people and has production facilities around the world.


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