Bavaria is one of Germany’s most innovative regions. Our DLD Campus conference at University of Bayreuth brought together business leaders, scientists and politicians for a full day of discussions centering around topics like artificial intelligence and automation, corporate change, sustainability and mobility. For a quick overview here’s a recap of major subjects, including select videos. To dig deeper, please visit our YouTube channel, which has a dedicated playlist for all #DLDcampus19 sessions.
1. Don’t Fear Robots – Make Them Your Friends
With machines getting more powerful, many of us are increasingly worried that robots will take over the world. But there is a crucial difference between artificial intelligence (AI) systems that can diagnose cancer or recognize people’s faces and machines clever enough to handle all kinds of situations in everyday life, as Philipp Zimmermann, co-founder and CEO of Franka Emika, pointed out.
For one thing, “robots do not have a sense of touch”, Zimmermann said – and while most people consider eyesight to be their most important sense, it’s manipulating items with their hands that’s actually far more complex. “Young children develop vision very quickly”, Zimmermann observed, “but it takes years until they are able to open a water bottle.”
Giving machines a sense of touch has proven to be a supremely difficult task, partly because it requires a complex interplay of sensors, haptics and the right materials which can act as a substitute for human skin. Still, there’s progress, as Zimmermann demonstrated when he showed a video of his company’s “Panda” robot. Thanks to hundreds of sensors, smart algorithms and precision electronics, Franka Emika’s robot – developed in Munich – is able to perform tasks that have so far been in the domain of humans.
One use case is to identify specific kinds of screws or gearwheels in a factory and then picking them from a conveyor belt. “Currently, this is a job that humans do”, Zimmermann said. Not because they like it – it’s boring, of course – but because someone has to do it. In the future, machines will take over. This is fine, Zimmermann argued, because it will free humans from the drudgery of routine work and allow them to focus on more productive tasks.
Ultimately, he suggested, almost all professions will change in this way, making cooperation between human and machine the new normal. “All of our children and childrens’ children will work with robots”, Zimmermann said, arguing that we should embrace this prospect, rather than fear the age of the machines. “Robotics is not dangerous”, Zimmermann insisted. “Robots are a tool to help us and make us more powerful.”
Image: Hanson Robotics
Dedicated to factory work, Franka Emika’s “Panda” robot clearly looks like a machine: It has a strong, metallic arm but no head, no legs, no smile. By contrast, “Sophia” is designed to mimic human behavior as closely as possible. The robot – made by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics – has become world-famous for looking like a woman, batting its (her?) eyelashes and tilting its (her?) head while speaking with a female voice that’s meant to suggest: there’s more in this plastic body than merely cables, microchips and electric motors.
“We do have a very rudimentary ability to model human emotions and values in our compting systems, so we can detect human emotions on a person’s face, for example”, Sophia’s inventor, David Hanson, told journalist Jennifer Schenker. “Yet there’s no machine in the world that can really understand people, and if we have a simulation of emotions. It’s just that – today.”
Hanson’s goal, however, is to develop robots that do become conscious enough of themselves and their environment that they stop being mere computers. “I dream that within our lifetimes we will have true living machines”, Hanson said. A robot like Sophia “would go through developmental stages […] going through a kind of childhood, with humans raising them like parents.”
2. Change Is Hard. But Rewarding
Glory is fading fast in the digital age: here today, gone tomorrow – that’s the fate many companies are facing unless they manage to adapt to an ever-changing environment. Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma, which spells out the constant need for self-disruption, “has never been more relevant than today”, argued Maks Giordano, Managing Partner and co-founder of kreait, a consultancy, in his talk about “Innovation In Exponential Times”.
Showing a video clip of a girl in Asia who pays for a purchase with her smart watch, Giordano asked, “How do you want to explain [to a child today] what a Walkman is? Is it offline Spotify?” Managers need to realize that “these are my future employees, these are my future colleagues”, Giordano said. “Talk to them, try to understand them!”
Germany’s flag carrier Lufthansa is trying to respond to the challenge of becoming more flexible by introducing “digital master classes”. The goal is to make employees more familiar with agile management and to break down hierarchies, according to Jörg Liebe, the company’s Senior Director Digital Innovations. To successfully transform itself Lufthansa will have to win over its workforce and make employees supporters of change, Liebe said. “It’s very important that we instill enthusiasm. We need to achieve that people burn for [their goals].”
Two topics – food production and plastic pollution – show that the need for change goes far beyond companies, affecting each and every one of us.
Feeding almost 8 billion people globally requires a dramatic rethink in what we eat as well as how we produce food. Meat in particular is considered problematic, given that breeding and feeding animals requires vast resources of land, water and energy for each calorie that humans ultimately consume. In addition, there are ethical questions related to breeding and slaughtering the animals, as well as emissions contributing to climate change.
“The current system is not sustainable”, said economics professor Nick Lin-Hi, who specializes in ethics and sustainability. “We have to stand up now and innovate the whole industry.” On the upside, much is already happening. Energy bars based on insect proteins are already here, just like plant-based hamburgers that many people find impossible to distinguish from beef. And there’s much more yet to come.
The hunt for alternative protein sources led the founders of Walding, a brand new startup from Bavaria, towards a rare mushroom that has “an umami taste, quite like chicken”, according to co-founder Alison Stille. After two years of research Stille and her partners are now getting ready to commercialize their first products.
Frank Kühne sees a good chance for new foods to catch on and become part of a mainstream diet. “A new generation is very open to food alternatives”, said the Chairman of the Board at Raps GmbH, a 95-year old supplier of seasonings to the food industry. “We know that our lifestyle is unsustainable”, Kühne said. He predicted that “the picture of the organic grown animal will fade away”, with more and more food coming out of labs where meat will be grown from cell tissue or might one day even be 3D-printed, as Kühne speculated. And whatever the future of food may look like, change was inevitable, he argued: “We become more and more aware of the real price of our food.”
Similarly, the negative effects of a lifestyle based on plastics and one-time use are becoming more apparent globally.
In a presentation packed with facts and figures, University of Bayreuth researcher Christian Laforsch showed how our use of plastics has become a problem not just for the environment but for us as humans as well. While annual production has grown to some 350 million tons per year, only a fraction of the waste gets recycled. Packaging is a large part of the problem: according to the World Economy Forum, about a third of all pastics used for packaging is not properly dealt with, “leaking” into the environment.
Often the material breaks down into smaller and smaller particles which end up in rivers and oceans, only to be eaten by animals. “Many organisms confuse plastic with food”, Laforsch said. But even humans increasingly absorb tiny pieces of plastic with their food, as studies show. Health risks include homornal effects and changes to the body’s microbiology in the digestive tract, according to Laforsch. “We need to start looking for new solutions – new materials but also new methods for recycling.”
To speed up the transition towards a circular economy, Laforsch suggested renaming DLD itself: “Admittedly, digitization is a sexy topic”, he said, “but sustainability deserves more attention. We need SLD: Sustainable Life Design.”
3. Venture Beyond Cities
As urban areas grow, smaller towns and villages suffer – losing jobs and shops, prompting younger generations to move to move away. How can this trend toward rural impoverishment – evident across much of Europe – be stopped or reversed?
Creating opportunities begins with education, Bayreuth’s mayor, Brigitte Merk-Erbe, suggested when she pointed to the effect that the local university – established in 1975 – has had on the community. “The importance of the University of Bayreuth goes far beyond teaching and research”, Merk-Erbe said in her opening keynote. “It has become a crucial partner for many companies, a launching pad for innovative startups and a vital asset for the region in general.”
The city itself, Merk-Erbe added, is planning to provide more and more governmental services digitally to make life easier for citizens. But local efforts only go so far. In many ways, cities depend on decisions made by regional and federal governments.
Judith Gerlach, Bavaria’s Minister of Digital Affairs, vowed to speed up the state’s digital transformation by investing six billion euros until 2022 in technology initiatives from artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing to digital health, blockchain and autonomous driving. “Cars controlled by artificial intelligence are potential game changers”, Gerlach said. “I would not be willing to bet that 20 years from now, vehicles will still have a steering wheel, two mirrors and a handbrake.”
For rural areas, autonomous driving holds the promise of offering much-needed mobility services in cheaper ways. Katharina Schulze, Chairwoman of the Green Party in the Bavarian parliament, stated that mobility was a “basic need”, especially in the countryside, but asked how people were supposed to “move around in environmentally friendly ways if there are no options to do so”. Her proposal was to invest in public transport even if the service cannot be run profitably.
“If we want mobility for all, then politics needs to create the proper framework to make this possible”, Schulze said. “I would like every town in Bavaria to have an hourly connection via public transport, from 5 a.m. to midnight”, Schulze added. “I call this a ‘mobility guarantee’ because I see it as something that’s of elementary importance.”
Making mobility sustainable also requires alternatives to the currently dominant combustion engines, as Michael Danzer, professor of engineering at University of Bayreuth, pointed out. Electric vehicles might be “the best concept”, he said, but could not currently be considered sustainable because today’s batteries require rare materials such as cobalt and recycling does not go far enough. “As the laws don’t require it too little is being done”, Danzer said. “What we really need is a circular economy for batteries.”
To drive progress in clean transportation Danzer and his colleagues are combining research in physics, chemistry, engineering and information technology at the university’s new research center for battery technology. Partly financed by the state of Bavaria, the facility is expected to create more than 100 academic jobs in the region – and has the potential to help improve mobility all over the world.