From the EMBA Digital Leadership classes with lecturers Pascal Kaufmann and Stephanie Züllig, a report by Claire Murigande

You all remember Will Smith starring in “I, Robot” in 2004. He plays a detective investigating a suspicious death that might have been caused by a robot. The movie is set in the year 2035. A time where humanoid robots serve as assistants and workers for their human owners. However, the investigation uncovers a larger threat to humanity controlled by an artificial intelligence (AI). Of course that is science fiction, but the underlying fear though is very much a recurring topic even today. So where do we really stand in 2020 – only a decade and a half away from I, Robot’s predictions?

Robots and AI

One of the most challenging questions Pascal posed to the class during his lecture was: how do we define intelligence? I found it challenging to give a precise answer because it was in fact an easy question. So I decided to put it together in a few words – words I would use to explain intelligence to my 14-year old nephew. It’s the ability to quickly react to a changing environment and find solutions to adapt. Moreover, drawing on acquired knowledge when facing unknown situations. Basically what enables every living being (plants, animals, humans) to make their way through life. Hmm… it started to get somewhat philosophical and I probably lost my nephew along the way.

Now when we speak about AI, can robots or computers do the above? Not at this point. In fact creating social robots is really hard. We are not anywhere close to soon manufacture humanoid-like fully functional companions, rather we have machines on wheels that actually look like toys.

It goes without saying that substantial progress has been made in the last decades even more so in the recent years when it comes to machine learning. Does that mean we should be worried about how we’ll live after tomorrow? For instance, will the majority of jobs disappear in 15 years from now? Probably not. They will however be slightly different from today as a result of technology evolving and further adoption.

Industry 4.0

Okay then AI and machine learning still have a way to go. Time will tell whether it’s a short or long way. What about other aspects of humanity where progress has led to qualitative innovation? Sure there’s the fourth industrial revolution. That’s right, after the steam engine (1.0) assembly line (2.0) and automation (3.0) we have now entered digital enterprise.

With extensive digitisation, this new age is considered as the smart connection between machines and processes within the industry. The increase in data quantity offers new possibilities for productivity and flexibility, especially with the use of resources.

I was fascinated by the new business models Stephanie presented during her lecture, like the use of digital twins in the design and operation of buildings. Picture this : at each step of a building’s life cycle (i.e. planing, construction and operation) you’re able to have an exact digital view before it’s actually built and functional. First the product twin, then the construction twin and finally the performance twin. The latter simulates for example fire evacuations in real-time therefore enabling proper planing. Basically the objective is to know beforehand what to do and what makes sense. Amazing!

Our Future

To sum up, in our day and age there’s no reason to be concerned about robots and machines soon taking over our lives. In contrast, we’ve initiated a new era with our industry and how businesses will run by digital services offering. The key to actively participate in this transformation is to understand the technology, work in networks with the right partners and ask the right questions, such as: what future do we want?