Goodbye to Apps, Mice and Keyboards – Interview with Prof. P. Wippermann
Robots, chatbots and the like ... The media seem to be reporting constantly about artificial intelligence (AI), and the topic is receiving constant exposure in the Internet and in social networks. How is AI going to change our everyday lives in the near future? To find answers, we spoke with trend researcher Peter Wippermann.
It seems almost everybody is now talking about AI. Do you, as a trend researcher, still refer to it as an "emerging topic"?
Professor Peter Wippermann: It is indeed a central topic, one that has been discussed intensively for about a year now, especially in the specialized media. But the discussion is still being conducted mostly by experts. The public at large is not yet concerned with it to any major degree. And, as the recent elections show, it has not really reached the political sector yet. We expect this trend to follow a pattern commonly seen in connection with emerging topics. It begins when something new is developed. Then, the mass media discover it and hype it out of proportion. At some point, many people find it rather overwhelming and then close themselves off to any innovation that might be involved.
When AI does reach the public at large, what will that arrival look like?
Wippermann: Most people will give little thought to what is really behind the new applications, or they simply won't know. This is why about half of all consumers now say, with respect to various services, that they don't care whether the services are being provided by computers or by human beings. The main thing is that they receive the services. This was a finding of a study carried out by the online retailer QVC. The question for many people is thus not "what's behind it?" but rather "what's in it for me?"
When you consider how AI will affect people's everyday lives in, say, five years, what would you say will be the most conspicuous changes?
Wippermann: Most keyboards and apps will have disappeared – just about everything will be voice-controlled. According to a 2016 study by Business Insider, one third of all Internet search queries will already be using voice search by 2020. Artificial intelligence will enable us to use normal speech in interacting with systems – systems will recognize and understand us and know what we like and are interested in. Major cooperative ventures in business are already showing us where this is heading. Microsoft and Amazon are merging their voice-controlled digital assistants, and Walmart is cooperating with Google Home. This indicates that households will probably be able to control everything, from smart home functions to payments, with just a single speech-recognition program.
What will these trends look like in the workplace?
Wippermann: The predictions differ. An early study concluded that the "network society" now emerging would eliminate a majority of the jobs found in the conventional industrial society. Researchers have since become more cautious about this, however. No one knows how quickly an economy will make use of all available technological options and then create completely new conditions for employment. My feeling is that some jobs and professions will disappear, but work itself will not disappear. New things will appear that at present are not even on the horizon. Think of the example of social media. Social media became popular in the mid-1990s, and now universities are already offering degrees in social media management. In any case, it is clear that lifelong learning is acquiring new importance. The online-education provider Udacity – whose largest strategic investor is the Bertelsmann Education Group – offers practically oriented online courses for IT specialists that lead to recognized certifications. AI is among the course areas offered.
What kinds of jobs will be eliminated? Would jobs in journalism, for example, be among them? That's the field I work in.
Wippermann: We have a rule of thumb in futures research that states that anything that can be conclusively described can become a program, i.e. can be carried out automatically. This applies, for example, to activities that are constantly repeated on a daily basis. The world of fashion offers a pertinent example. Soon, that sector is expected to introduce fully automated garment production, including use of sewing robots, and then, for example, to be able to manufacture customized T-shirts for 30 U.S. cents. Amazon already holds a patent for an "on demand fashion" system. Other relevant developments are also emerging. Developments such as blockchain technology, for example, which will eliminate the many contracts and documents that are produced throughout logistics chains and that accompany transports. It will also eliminate all the pertinent intermediaries. But back to you and to artificial intelligence: Intelligent writing bots now produce sports and economic news articles, doing such things as combining figures with results. AI bots will not replace journalists in the task of providing new ideas and thoughts, but they will surely support journalists in their work. This would apply to work in the commentary, opinion and feuilleton categories, for example.
That seems at least somewhat comforting. Surely, we can also take comfort in that AI will make our professional and private lives easier ...
Wippermann: It definitely will. We futures researchers see two contrasting sides to the simplicity that delivers such convenience, however; because the simplicity is backed by greater complexity, we like to speak of "simplexity." The more that the technology simplifies everyday life, the more complex it will be. Providers of such systems will have to deal with high levels of complexity ...
... and thus will need specialists, such as developers and system managers. But we have a shortage of qualified programmers and of specialists for such areas as machine learning and big data. How can IT companies address this problem?
Wippermann: Successful startups seek to help shape a better world. Tesla, for example, is linking two sectors that have been separate until now – electromobility and energy generation – and it is producing innovations that are forcing older sectors to react. Such companies exert a great fascination and attraction for university graduates and for specialists in relevant fields. The existing big players – the top dogs who have long led the way – are well advised to tear down their old structures and make way for new ones. Employees want to be doing things that are useful and fulfilling, and they want to be creative and move things forward. Employers need to position themselves clearly in terms of what they stand for and why they even exist. Conventional companies can attract creative people by orienting themselves to the future and not focusing solely on profit. In the automotive sector, for example, we are seeing a trend toward a sharing economy with self-driving vehicles. Auto sales per se will be somewhat de-emphasized, and "mobility" will become the primary product. Such changes are going to be difficult for many. But the caravan of innovators is already moving.
Peter Wippermann ...
... is among Germany's most renowned trend researchers. From 1993 to 2016, he was Professor of Communication Design at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen. In 1992, he founded Trendbüro, located in Hamburg, as a "consulting company for social change." In 2002, he co-founded the media design and marketing company LeadAcademy für Mediendesign und Medienmarketing. Wippermann, 68, is editor of the trend magazine "inspire" and has served as co-editor of the "Jahr der Werbung" awards (Econ Verlag; now "Econ Megaphon Awards"). Books (partial list): Werte-Index 2018; Wertewandel in Deutschland, 2017; and "Wie kauft Deutschland übermorgen ein?" (QVC-Zukunftsstudie 2016).