Work 4.0 – Of robots and people

Dialogue forum, 16 May 2018

Intelligent machines are helping us in more and more areas of life. In some cases, humans are being replaced by robots. What are the implications for us? Our view of ourselves as the peak of creation is being challenged, and the basic principles of social coexistence may even be in jeopardy. What needs to happen to allow people to keep up with the pace of the networked Industry 4.0 with as little stress as possible?

It all started with simple automation processes, for example in the area of car production. In future, machines will move into more and more areas of our life; this is because robotics and artificial intelligence are set to make a quantum leap in terms of technology. Professor Sami Haddadin from the Technical University of Munich believes the changes will be profound: "This digital revolution will permanently transform our society, from industry and healthcare all the way through to the private sector." 
 
Wide range of potential applications
In contrast to the early days, robots are now being used as adaptive tools to assist skilled workers. "Whereas the simple robots from the 1980s mainly replaced employees, the new robots are serving and assisting humans," explained the robotics expert. But he added that one requirement is that people should be at the heart of the development. If this is the case, safe, networked and adaptable robot assistants can function as useful tools to make our lives easier. The scientist believed that it is crucial in this context to give people the best possible training to handle these tools. There would then be virtually no limits to the possible applications. "Mini robots are conceivable as modern workshop assistants or kitchen helps at home – or we could have robots that perform quality assurance in the field of dentistry, or provide valuable support to specialist doctors." 
 

Prof. Haddadin (2nd from left) is conviced: Robots and machine intelligence can open up many new possibilities.
 
As with every new technology, there will be winners and losers when robots are introduced. But there is a fundamental problem here we need to consider, as sociologist Prof. Kerstin Jürgens from the University of Kassel illustrated. She believed that the new technologies are irritating people's perception of themselves, raising the questions of what are the differences between human beings and machines, and how we see our position in the world in the future. "The irritation aspect is that, up to now, we have believed ourselves to be something quite special in the universe," she explained. "Now we are worried that technology is becoming cleverer then we are." 
 
New background conditions needed
With the help of artificial intelligence, robots are capable of learning independently, and becoming wiser from experience. As a result, machines are assuming cognitive skills that were previously reserved for humans. This technological progress presents challenges for the basic principles of social coexistence. Professor Jürgens highlighted one of the problems: "There is a gap between the pace of digital change and the required adjustments and extensions to rules and background conditions." There are no rules about how we should deal with the new developments – with our data for example. "There are discussions about whether we need to revise the German Civil Code, which defines the ownership of the data," the expert explained. We also need to consider the extent to which the changes in the work environment that are accompanying the digital transformation are desirable. "If we see people as beings with multiple skills who need to socialise, we must ensure that technology does not restrict them in terms of their skills and freedom, but instead helps them to develop to their full potential," she argued.
 

The permanent exposure to information through modern media means stress for the human brain, Horst Kraemer explains.
 
Computers and robots as stress factors 
Horst Kraemer, a pioneer in the field of stress research and prevention, pointed out how easily people can be overwhelmed by the increasing digitalisation of everyday life. "There are grounds to fear a drastic increase in health problems for people who cannot cope with the changes," he said. The fact is that digitalisation is changing our thought and perception processes. The emotion centre of our brain, which in turn controls our knowledge centre, is blocked if we become stressed by a flood of information. 
 
There is also the problem that vital human encounters and sensory stimuli are increasingly missing in the everyday digital world. There is scarcely any time for honest feelings for others. Empathy and social competence are then the casualties. "My big worry is that social interaction will suffer in the generation that is growing up in a digital world because they lack the training," said Kraemer. He was already seeing signs that people were becoming emotionally deadened. "This would explain why paramedics are prevented from carrying out their work, and why people who need help are often ignored." In addition, the interaction between the hormonal, immune and nervous systems is disrupted by constant digital stimuli, with the result that internal regeneration processes in the body shut down. "Our stress system in our heads controls the immune system, which in turn determines our health. For that reason, it must be handled very carefully." 
 
Robotics expert Haddadin did not believe there was a risk of a multi-class society developing because of the increasing use of robots. He believed the opposite was the case: "Up to now, only major corporations have been able to afford expensive automation technology. But as costs come down, small and medium-sized enterprises will also be using industrial robots," he said. "One prerequisite is that people are properly trained." 
He cited the model of Finland, which in the mid-1990s offered free computer and e-mail courses for the over 60s. "But we also need to redouble our efforts in vocational schools to ensure the next generation learns how to deal with the systems," he added. 
 
Limits to robotics
Professor Jürgens was in no doubt that the professional environment will change, but was unwilling to make any precise forecasts. "We can be relatively sure that professions where computers are important will be prone to rationalisation." On the other hand, she said that innovations would be a boon if they allowed people with the relevant digital carers or household assistants to remain at home for longer. "Even if many activities can potentially be replaced, we should bear in mind that human beings possess qualities we should not replace," she said. This would not work in the absence of political regulation. "If robots replace human employees, we must ensure that the humans continue to earn enough. This would put an end to the fear-fuelled debate about robotics," she added. So as automation progresses, we need to discuss the value of work and continue to remunerate workers properly. “Robotics must not be used simply as a savings programme.”
 

Almost 200 people participated in the vivid discussion.

But, as Haddadin explained, the new technology can also help to create jobs. "Over the last few years, there have been examples of production companies returning to Germany from the Far East because highly skilled workers with robot tools now allow them to produce competitively." Haddadin believed this combination of people and machines needs to be accelerated further to keep value creation and industry sectors in Germany. He also proposed quantifying and distributing the value of robot work. Efficiency gains made possible by the technology should be used for this, for example to increase the pay of nurses and caregivers in the social welfare and healthcare sectors. This also raised the question of how we transition our health system to the next level with the social use of robots. 
 
No machine today is sensitive enough to replace the human sense of touch. But it is only a question of time before researchers make a breakthrough in this area. It is certain that humanoid helpers will make our everyday lives much easier. Up to now, nightmare scenarios where robots acquire power over people have proved unfounded. To increase the level of acceptance, we need to find mechanisms to ensure that a largest possible section of society benefits of the economic advantages from the new technology. 
 
The forum series "Digital. Innovative. Fair? The future on our doorsteps" clearly illustrated how complex and multi-faceted digitalisation processes are. They are closely linked with globalisation and communication, but also with old-fashioned sounding things like electric cables and dilapidated lines. The rich potpourri of variables will facilitate an entire range of positive developments, provided these are controlled with suitable regulations. As a society, we need to learn to think more systemically so that we can understand the impact of the new technologies. And all of us must be open to change. Otherwise we run the risk of being left behind in the fast lane of the new digital world. We would like to express our sincere thanks to our speakers and guests – for participating, learning and discussing. 
 
18.05.2018