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Digital economy

German Chancellor Merkel opens CeBIT digital trade fair

A self-driving shuttle service, receptionist robots and delivery drones - at CeBIT, companies showcase the future. Merkel embraced the changes new technologies will bring. Here is what will be big at the show.

Watch video 00:27

Merkel and Abe supporting free trade

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday opened the CeBIT, Germany's largest digital trade fair, in the northern German city of Hanover. "It's the task of the state to really promote digitalization,” she said at the opening ceremony, speaking after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japan is the show's partner country this year, a country the German IT industry can learn a lot from, according to trade association Bitkom. More than a quarter of the world's top 100 tech firms hail from Japan - while almost none of them are based in Germany. And while hardware trade between the two partners has been growing, Germany imports around five times more than it exports. "We have a friend in Japan, but also a competitor,” Merkel said, as she pushed for freer trade between the two countries.

Watch video 01:52

Japanese robots at the Cebit trade fair

Over the next five days, more than 3,000 exhibitors from 70 different countries will showcase their latest technologies. And while the halls only officially open to the public on Monday, the press could already peek in before.

Everything is connected

The future is here: That is the impression one may get when checking out the stalls already open on Sunday. Drones, virtual reality headsets, humanoid robots - all the things that once were a distant science fiction fantasy are now there. But they also were last year. And the year before. So what is really new at CeBIT this year?

For one, it seems all technology is becoming more interconnected. The "Internet of Things" is starting to claim the public sphere. The Deutsche Telekom, for instance, announced it would launch a smart parking scheme in the city of Hamburg later this year. All public parking spots will be equipped with a sensor that recognizes whether the space is available. Motorists can check this information in real time on their phone - and supposedly find a space to park a lot quicker.

Or SAP, for example, showcased their concept of a smart and completely interconnected airport. Maintenance, incoming and outgoing air traffic, passenger flows - everything could be automated and coordinated based on data. Should passengers' departure gates change, for instance, software could predict their new route and send it to the shops along the way, who could then tailor their offers accordingly. Some airports already use certain features of the system, but in its entirety it remains a vision, at least for the moment.

Robots taking over?

Another trend that already became apparent is that the lines between humans and robots continue to blur. Machines, with the help of artificial intelligence, are more and more capable of autonomously interacting with people and could soon replace them in many jobs. But not only that - the two can also work together.

"We are showcasing a technology which simplifies the interaction between robots and humans, so much so that it is almost the same as if two humans interact,” said Mohammad Mehdi Moniri from the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence. With virtual reality glasses on, he only had to move his fingers through the air in front of him - and a nearby robot moved accordingly.

Moniri steers his robot (DW/M. Rohwer-Kahlmann)

Mixed reality: Mohammad Mehdi Moniri steers a robot - without touching it

This kind of teamwork could come in handy when carrying out dangerous tasks like defusing a bomb or working in spaces with harmful chemicals. "You can send the robot where there are no humans, and then control the whole thing from here,” Moniri explained.

At another stand, technology helped a paralyzed person walk again. American firm Ekso Bionics and Vodafone jointly developed a walking robot for people to wear. A virtual nervous system reacts to upper-body movements and places one foot in front of the other accordingly.

The walking robot costs around 120,000 euros ($128,000) and is currently used only in hospitals. Also, patients still need crutches and one additional person for support. But the ultimate goal is to get the device ready for everyday use.

Our lives will change, this much is clear - not only from the examples above. Technology will transform business as well as daily life. Trade fairs like Cebit give a glimpse of what the future may look like. And with organizers expecting more than 200,000 visitors, it seems many are eager to find out.

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