Success through innovation

Or, why my aunt is getting a new telephone

My aunt recently asked me what I’m working on right now. I told her that I was working on an artificial intelligence project for Deutsche Telekom. She took a deep breath, remembering some problem that she recently had with her telephone, and said:

“Is natural intelligence not enough for those guys?”

My aunt is well into her eighties. It is safe to say that she’s not entirely up to date with technology. Her telephone still has a rotary-dial. However, I get a similar reaction from a lot of the people I know, “Deutsche Telekom and artificial intelligence?”

I must admit that I too had my doubts and a few preconceptions. Nevertheless, Deutsche Telekom is a long way from the state-owned utility it once was. A fresh, new breeze has been blowing through the company for quite some time now.
I learnt about this new side to Deutsche Telekom while I was still at university. The one-time PTT formed Telekom Innovation Laboratories (T-Labs) back in 2004, in partnership with select universities – in particular, the Technical University of Berlin. I read somewhere that T-Labs was intended support all the group’s units in its future transformation by being a “supporter, challenger, and joker or disruptor.” And where else does an atmosphere of “encouraging new thinking” – beyond the norm – exist if not at university?

Since 2006, T-Labs has been cooperating with the Ben Gurion University of Negev in Be’er Scheva, Israel – along with others like the University of the Arts in Berlin and the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest – and partners from industry and business, as well as start-ups. T-Labs focuses on long and medium-term innovations within IT and communications technology, from its locations in Berlin, Darmstadt, Budapest, and Mountain View (USA). Just imagine: around 360 experts and scientists from a wide variety of disciplines working together, along with young entrepreneurs from more than 25 countries!
I’ve always liked this international mindset; researching things together to make the future better (we hope). Here I have the opportunity to actively design the future.
In addition to its existing locations in Berlin, Silicon Valley, and Israel, Deutsche Telekom is now venturing into alliances with European partner universities. The new professorship in “Data Science and Engineering”, at the Faculty for Information at the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest, is the first research project in Hungary for T-Labs. The Data Science and Engineering lab was launched during the winter semester 2016-17. Additional alliances with other European universities are being planned.
Telekom even has its own head of innovation, Christian von Reventlow. He once said, “We believe in the future of Europe.” Also the vice chancellor of one of the participating universities, Barna Mezey, does not want to build an academic ivory tower through these joint activities, but rather to focus on European thinking,

“Success can only stem from innovation and long-term investments based on cooperation,” he said: together and not alone, to put it another way.

Whereby Confucius is often quoted elsewhere – and undoubtedly he would have had something clever to say about the issue of renewal – I would prefer to cite the words of former German Minister of the Economy Sigmar Gabriel, “The answer to renewal and innovation is to push ahead with investments in education, research, and digital infrastructure.” It is just as if he were describing Deutsche Telekom. Back then, it was a challenge he issued at the January symposium for the future of Germany: Innovationsagenda #de2025.
It is my impression that Deutsche Telekom is actually living this much-quoted digital transformation. Innovation – and its unruly sister, disruption – should not be considered threatening or anything to be afraid of, but rather as an ongoing challenge. I am sure this is also one of the reasons why we work in a very practical, market-oriented way.
There is even an independent department for this, with the wonderful name Innovation Development. This concentrates on Telekom’s current and future areas of business. In particular, research and development activities focus on new technologies that can be introduced to the market within a period of up to five years; this includes the latest trends. Ultimately, the market success of new products and services depends enormously upon our ability to meet actual needs and desires of our customers.
Aside from the values and philosophies of the company, I experience a very open culture in my everyday work here. There is a hands-on approach, everyone participates, and we have flat hierarchies. Of course, we are all still in the learning phase. Indeed, the issue of artificial intelligence is completely new. However, Deutsche Telekom offers the opportunity to apply short iterations to looking at how customers, how the market reacts to Tinka and everything else yet to come.
Of course, IBM, Microsoft, Google, and the others are the first names that spring to mind at the mention of AI; however, our performance has been almost unbelievable in just a brief period. Austria was our laboratory to a certain extent. We brought Tinka to the market there more than two years ago – before people had even started talking about chatbots and it became a craze.
Now there are bots practically everywhere, even though many still suffer teething problems. Or attempts backfire, such as Microsoft’s Tay. I remember that Microsoft promised, “the more you speak, the better Tay gets.” Tay could tell jokes, play games and tell stories. It was just foolish that it was intended to learn from its users. It parroted some terrible things. So bad, in fact, that Microsoft had to shut it down. What really matters is the approach you take to something – my aunt has been preaching this for decades. Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana didn’t fare any better. Nothing like that has happened to our alien Tinka. She is learning and developing, unnoticed by many, far away in Austria, and as a result, we have been able to gain valuable experience. When all messaging platforms came out with a bot, we were able to go live with a Facebook bot, thanks to our one and a half years of experience.
Returning to where we started out: My aunt will be happy that I worked on the digital assistant. Namely because her service requests can be taken care of straight away and she doesn’t have to hang on the line for an eternity. But first, I’m going to buy her a new phone. I tell you, she still has a rotary-dial telephone! I’m sure that there must be some technology museum out there that would be happy to take her antique phone as an exhibit!

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