Photo: Ulrik Jantzen

Computer expert who thinks outside the box

Monday 28 Sep 15


Jan Madsen
Professor, Section Head, Deputy Director
DTU Compute
+45 45 25 37 51

Jan Madsen is a professor and Deputy Director at DTU Compute, an expert in embedded systems, and fascinated by how his knowledge of computer systems can be used in completely different academic areas—such as biology. 

Were there even the slightest possibility that it could be done, Jan Madsen would almost certainly design a computer program to add a few more hours to the day. This is something he, himself, could use, and it would also be fully in line with his career as a researcher, which to an extent has centred on making the impossible possible.

Professor, Director and Head of Section. PhD Supervisor for six students, co-applicant to six major research projects, and consultant to a couple of spin-out companies. Lecturer, member of the think tank ‘Denmark 3.0’, and Danish Academic Ambassador to Singularity University.

These a just a few of Jan Madsen’s roles and assignments at present—over and above spending time with his wife and two teenage children. While the sum adds up to much more than 100 per cent, the professor reassures us undauntedly that there is a way to make it work. As long as you keep it sufficiently flexible.

"As a researcher, you may be tempted to hold on tight to your own, blinkered definition of the world. But if you dare to be open, to make yourself a little vulnerable, then exciting things can happen."
Professor Jan Madsen, DTU Compute

Part of the explanation is that both Jan and his wife, who is employed as a stylist, have flexible working hours. Jan’s working hours are actually so flexible that he hardly ever switches off completely.

“You try to forget sometimes, but the thoughts keep swirling around. I do a lot of running in my free time, and I find that all kinds of things fall into place when I’m pounding the trails. You can certainly sit down and devote all your concentration to a given issue, but the bright ideas often appear during a run.”

Researcher first and last
Jan Madsen has to juggle a lot of different hats in his career, but research still takes top priority. This is actually the reason why he chose not to take the obvious step and apply for Helle Rootzén’s position when she decided to step down as head of DTU Compute.

It all started with a PhD devoted to understanding and designing microchips. At an early stage, Jan Madsen became enamoured with the topic of ‘co-design’, a new trend that involved systematically treating software and hardware as a single concept. He is fascinated with designing the architecture that determines how programs are actually run.

When they hear the word ‘computer’, most people inevitably think of their desktop or laptop machines, but 99 per cent of the computers in the world today are embedded in other objects: from cars, aircraft and nuclear plants, to remote control units, mobile phones and hearing aids. And these embedded systems became the core focus of Jan Madsen’s research.

“The distinguishing feature of embedded systems is that resources are limited. They have to be small, they mustn’t use much energy, and it must be possible for them to perform their tasks at a given time—and then lie dormant the rest of the time. These conditions present big challenges, which I think are fun to solve.”

Into the world of biology
Ten years ago, the department took on a new associate professor, Paul Pop, who introduced what is known as ‘lab on a chip’: a biochemical laboratory in micro-format. This was a huge source of inspiration for Jan Madsen, as he could trace the idea back to the microchips he had been working with since his PhD: the technological development would allow the creation of increasingly complex chips, so it would therefore be necessary to develop automated methods and the tools to design them. Jan Madsen glimpsed almost limitless opportunities, and he was soon on his way into the world of biology—a new direction he has continued to follow over the years.

“It’s an enormous incentive for me have my perceptions challenged about what is actually possible. As a researcher, you may be tempted to hold on tight to your own, blinkered definition of the world. But if you dare to be open, to make yourself a little vulnerable, then exciting things can happen.”

The computer expert has actually accompanied the biologists on their journey to the very core of life itself.

“Scientists have gradually come to understand each and every component of DNA. And when, as an engineer, you find yourself holding complete ‘library’ of DNA strands, it’s only natural to want to start building something new. It occurred to me that we could contribute to this field simply by considering each cell to be a tiny, programmable computer. It’s a fascinating concept ...”

Eye opener in California
A few years ago, Jan Madsen spent a week at Singularity University in California, which is devoted to in-depth study of technological development and what it means to society. It proved to be quite an eye-opener, which still influences his work and has made him even more conscious of his obligation to share his insider knowledge with the world around him.

“I feel a bit like Niels Bohr, when he realized what atomic theory could lead to, and set off to meet leaders all over the world to warn them about the dangers of atomic weapons. That is why I’ve become Danish ambassador for Singularity University and attempt to interact with both companies and politicians, to initiate debates and explain where we’re headed.”

Jan Madsen is an optimist by nature, and identifies all kinds of opportunities from technology—although he emphasizes the importance of recognizing that it is also open to abuse. However, there is nothing to be gained by panicking and legislating against it. This will only result in the research shifting location, he explains.

Windmills or walls
“In the long term, I think development is moving in a positive direction. In the short term, however, we have to realize that machines will inevitably take over many of the jobs that are done by people today. Lab-on-a-chip will replace laboratory assistants, driverless cars will eliminate a variety of driving jobs. And yes, there are even algorithms for writing articles. So we are all under threat to a greater or lesser extent.”

When Jan Madsen gives lectures, he often concludes by citing the famous Chinese proverb: “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls while others build windmills.”

Jan Madsen thinks it is imperative that we maintain an open discussion about what we want to use technology for.

That said, he is definitively leaning towards the windmills. 

Article in DTUavisen no. 7, September 2015.


Photo: Ulrik Jantzen

Jan Madsen was born on  15 January 1963. He lives in Hellerup with his wife Pernille Vest, his son Joel (16) and his daughter Flora (13).

  • 2014: Ambassador for Singularity University
  • 2013: National ICT expert for Horizon 2020
  • 2011: Member of the IT think-tank Denmark 3.0
  • 2010: Deputy Director of DTU Informatics and, subsequently, DTU Compute
  • 2002: Appointed Professor and Head of Department for Embedded Systems Engineering
  • 1996: Associate Professor at the Department of Informatics
  • 1992: Assistant Professor at the Department of Informatics, DTU
  • 1992: PhD in computer science from DTU
  • 1986: MSc Eng in Electrical Engineering from DTU