'Homo digitalis' or Having fun at work: Stephan Schäfer, professor of automation technology at HTW Berlin, talks about the human-machine partnership

02. May 2022

“Homo digitalis” or Having fun at work

Stephan Schäfer, professor of automation technology at HTW Berlin, talks about the human-machine partnership

Stephan Schäfer (l.) mit Studierenden © Britta Radike / HTW Berlin

Researches the role of humans in automated systems: human-machine visionary Stephan Schäfer (left) © Britta Radike / HTW Berlin

Humans have been living with machines for centuries. These partnerships – everyone seems to agree – will become deeper, more substantial, and more comprehensive than ever before in future. Data, processing power, and connectivity open up new possibilities that we are barely able to comprehend today. But what does that mean for the future of work? This is precisely what Stephan Schäfer is researching on.

In the Hollywood movie “Terminator”, an artificial intelligence called “Skynet” is activated and immediately triggers a nuclear war. From this point on, Skynet sends out an army of so-called terminators that the surviving humans must fight off. A war of humans versus machines ensues. The preeminent scientist Stephen Hawking was no less pessimistic about the future: “Contrary to our intellect, computers double their processing power every 18 months. It is therefore a real danger that they will develop intelligence and take over the world.”

The issue of “man and machine” or “man vs. machine”, says Stephan Schäfer, professor of automation technology at the University of Applied Sciences for Engineering and Economics (HTW Berlin), “can always be looked at as a dystopia, i.e., pessimistically, or optimistically as a utopia. Pessimists only see terminators, while optimists see alternative planning systems, more like the Star Trek world. Schäfer calls himself as a “Trekkie”. For him, the future lies in a human-machine partnership. The advancement of technology cannot be stopped. It is only a matter of using it and creating appropriate frameworks, rules, and norms.

Toby Walsh, too, is a researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. The British-Australian computer scientist and professor at the University of New South Wales is convinced that “homo sapiens” as a species will soon be sidetracked by the “homo digitalis”, replacing human thought with machine thinking. He also says: “We have to set the course for this today. We must make sure that people have a task, an income, a future of their own design. Robots should take over work, but they should never replace humans.”

The newest “industrial revolution” – Industry 4.0 – has been heralded on all channels for a few years now. It will lead companies towards more flexible production processes with a much greater number of variants, make production networks more resistant against disruption, enable them to react quicker to machine failures, and have production chains become more connected using information technology. The ensuing debate focuses primarily on aspects of technology and increasing production efficiency. In this machine-dominated manufacturing process, humans are left with nothing but a supporting role.

According to Stephan Schäfer, it’s not quite that easy. His research looks at the role of humans in automated systems, the future of work, if you will. Optimising interaction processes between humans and machines will lead to improvements of the capabilities of the entire labour system. “We need to develop systems that put people at the centre, that adapt to people.” To do so, we need “people-centred technologies”.

Automation, artificial intelligence, robots: Why? Professor Walsh responds the following way: “To do all the work that starts with a ‘d’: dirty, dull, dangerous, and difficult. Why send people into a mine when a robot could do it? Why monotonously and endlessly pull a seam when a machine can do it just as well?"

Stephan Schäfer on the future of work: “Let people have fun doing productive work. People make quality, technology cannot create quality,” he says. Adaptive automation can make a valuable contribution here.

“Manufacturing, too, needs more gamification.” Digital twins, learning apps, vital data monitoring, and measurement during work, challenges, and games. While this may sound like a nightmare to some, to Schäfer, it’s the future of work. “Workspaces must become more individual, more healthy, more communicative, and more educational. Automation is our tool to achieve this and the one we have to use.”

Using new technological possibilities and increases in processing power, the future of work will focus more on people and less on machines. The progress being made at the interface of humans and machines is currently very rapid and is already changing the way we work today. “In future, technology will be a much more natural part of our working environment. Embedded into appropriate legal and technical regulation, the chances are good for a harmonious and complementary co-existence.”

Rico Bigelmann for POTENZIAL

Potenzial: Human-machine partnership (in German)
Potenzial – The WISTA Magazine. Edition: Human-machine partnership / May 2022