“The Future Won’t Happen Without Us!”

by Natascha Zeljko

Dr. Ann-Kristin Achleitner, Professor and Chair of Entrepreneurial Finance (TUM School of Management, Technical University of Munich) talks AI. An interview about social responsibility and the opportunities associated with technological change

The topic of AI is currently dominating much discourse—it has arrived in people’s consciousness. Angela Merkel also intervened in the debate with a video message. She says that AI promotes growth and prosperity. What fascinates you about this subject?

Artificial intelligence is one of the big issues, if not the biggest in terms of innovation. What motivates me is how we in Germany can initiate the necessary innovations; how we succeed in preserving our achievements and looking to the future with optimism.

For most people, AI still causes discomfort, even fear. How can they, despite this, be won over on this topic?

You are addressing an important theme: what do we think about technology? What do we think about innovation? I find it understandable that people are initially reluctant to embrace change. Very few people are consciously directly involved with AI, especially since you often hear negative or frightening things. I think it is up to all of us, whether in science, business, or the media, to deal with it in a different way, and above all to talk about opportunities.

What needs to change?

First of all, we would have to become aware of our own usage patterns in order to understand how digital our lives already are. It’s a trivial thought, but you only have to imagine what would happen if we suddenly no longer had the Internet. I believe that this process of consciousness is needed. A second important point is, as exciting as future scenarios are, they are far too abstract. We need to think more in concrete examples, like we do in job descriptions.

Germany is regarded as cautious to critical when it comes to new technologies. It is argued that we let technological change pass us by. And then, at the end of October 2018, the World Economic Forum published a study celebrating Germany as the country most capable of innovation in the world. How does this contradictory perception come about?

Both are indeed true. The consumer sector is clearly dominated by large American and Chinese companies. In other words—we won’t see a European Google. But the market for industrial applications is light years bigger. Germany is an outstanding industrial location, which is why we have to push the Internet of things forward. It is important to think through and link all the different facets, including cooperation between startups and large companies. We should seize this opportunity and put ourselves in as strong a position as possible.

Germany is still at the forefront of basic research. The problem starts with the implementation, scientists migrate…

This imbalance—strong basic research, weak implementation in our own marketable products—has often been linked to the example of the mp3 player. But a lot has happened here. Today we have achieved a lot, the technology transfer works better. The challenge is how newly founded companies can grow without being sold abroad too early. A decisive factor is sufficient financing, for example through IPOs.

In Europe, and especially in Germany, AI is also strongly concerned with ethical issues. The so-called “Ethical Artificial Intelligence” is to become a kind of USP. How does it succeed in holding its own against countries like China? How do we deal with this asymmetric competition?

It is absolutely right to think about a European variant. Although there is a lot of whining, Germany is still highly attractive. After all, there is a reason why we like living here and why young, well-educated people do not migrate elsewhere. We have to be aware of the good environment in which we live. And that includes our social and societal structure. And a lot of research is being done here; for example, by Acatech, the German Academy of Engineering Sciences, which is developing concepts for the future of work and is working intensively on the AI. The aim is to embed these technical developments in our value structure. To think about the topic of responsibility and ethics and to think about a consensus of the different social groups.

Critics say it will further divide society. That there will be a technological elite and the rest will be left behind by this development. What do we say to the apologists of doom?

Whether it gets better or worse, it won’t just happen without us. It depends on what we do with it. And we should design instead of moving scenery. Of course, social discourse is immensely important, but that requires knowledge and a fair debate. That is why doomsday scenarios are so dangerous. One should only look at how many doomsday scenarios there were that did not occur. By the way, there are just as many optimistic prognoses, such as that the Internet will lead to total democratization. That is why enlightenment is important. And we need to think about a wide variety of issues on this basis. So there will be much less lifelong work for an industrial company than there used to be. Biographies will be more interrupted. A crucial question here is: how do I have to organize social security in order to do justice to it?

That debate has been going on for quite some time, one example being unconditional basic income. And yet there has recently been a growing recognition of the high psychological value of work.

Absolutely right. One has to distinguish between the changes employed to cushion one’s hardships and the changes to the fundamental structure that one strives for in a society. We only have to look into our everyday lives. There are many occupational groups that are important and are becoming more and more important. Nursing occupations or training occupations, for example, which can never be completely replaced by machines. Of course, I can support nurses with nursing robots in clinics. But nothing will replace the nurse in the end. The real debate goes far beyond AI. We need to talk about the values, framework conditions, and possibilities of different professions.

Seen in this light, this debate was overdue…

Yes, it would have come even without the technical upheavals. The debate about care professions and their even greater importance due to demographic change is fundamentally important. But we also need to talk about training, school, and early childhood education. How can the young generation be prepared for the occupations of the future? What skills are decisive here? Right up to the question of resilience and psychological factors that are becoming even more important. This is where the course is set early on. That is why the training of kindergarten teachers and teachers is so important. In other words, the reality we experience is different from the one conjured up by the doomsday scenarios. And instead of just thinking about the jobs that will be lost, we should also urgently think about the new ones that will be added. It’s about starting to constructively build this future.

In your opinion, where do you think this is already successful?

One example: the presentation of the Digital Female Leader Award. What a display of a new spirit of optimism and a positive creative energy from the finalists! How these women are absorbed into their jobs—not only in the economy, but also in the social sector. The contentment and the fun they had when they talked about their jobs and projects shows how important work is beyond simply securing one’s livelihood. And when you realize that you could never have imagined most of these job profiles ten or 15 years ago, let alone such an award ceremony on a Saturday evening. And there will also be many jobs in ten or 15 years that we cannot imagine today. You can’t think about the future from ahead, but you can slowly move towards it.

You have a lot to do with students. What distinguishes this generation?

The most striking thing is that they are not afraid of the speed of change. Or, as one student recently said, “Change is not fast enough for me.” It has become clear to me that we should stop putting everything into a historical context with the resulting burdens. There was a moment that opened my eyes. One seminar recently dealt with the financing of high-growth companies. The question arose as to what we can learn from the negative experiences of the German Neuer Markt [“new market”, referring to the German stock market in the 90s] for the next wave of stock markets. For someone in my age group, this is an obvious theme. And one student said something, annoyed, “What interest is it to me, what happened then? I was in kindergarten at the time.”  Even though it came across a bit snotty, I was grateful for her comment because it was absolutely true. We Germans tend to burden ourselves too much with the past in all aspects, including areas in which it’s not absolutely necessary; the older ones, of course, seemingly more so than the younger ones, who are less burdened. From an entrepreneurial point of view, we could instead go much more freely into the future.

What role does diversity play in this change?

A very big one, of course—and one that goes beyond the gender issue. In addition to cultural diversity, it is also about experiential and neuro-diversity. Especially with international teams, you can see how much they benefit from including completely different horizons. Unfortunately, we in Germany are still a bit removed from this. My experience is that you have a different sounding board with different backgrounds. This also applies to women who have perhaps taken care of their families for a few years and then come back to work. If digitalization brings completely new business models, then this could also be an opportunity for women who want to reinvent themselves.


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