Connection of robot and human hand
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2022-07-01 publication

"The use of intelligent systems is changing our work – we’ll only make progress by working together"

The EU’s Industry 5.0 concept foresees humans and machines working together more closely in production. This presents a lot of potential – and some non-technical hurdles, according to one VDE expert. Jessica Fritz is pursuing a vision in which humans and machines form a perfect team for digital production environments. A manager for digital technologies and services at VDE, she has long been working on the kind of practical cooperation that is now growing even more important under the banner of “human-centered production” in the EU’s Industrial 5.0 concept. In this interview, she explains the potential of successful human-machine interaction – and important steps needed to design technology that puts human interests first.

VDE dialog - the technology magazine
Jessica Fritz, manager for digital technologies and services at VDE

Jessica Fritz, manager for digital technologies and services at VDE

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Intelligent systems are already part of everyday life in many companies today, and more are constantly being developed. What do we need to change about this development? In the past, the goal was often to automate people out of their jobs. We’ve since come to the conclusion that humans have skills that can’t be replaced by a machine or AI. The big challenge here is enabling people and systems to truly work hand in hand. It also means that employees who have been performing routine work will have to learn how to use intelligent systems. This requires new skills and a different kind of responsibility – one they often haven’t been trained for yet. That’s why we urgently need concepts in which workers benefit from the use of intelligent machines and aren’t disqualified from the world of work. 

Shouldn’t skilled workers be accustomed to working with these technologies? 
So far, they’ve rarely been consulted or have received little explanation when such technologies have been implemented. When intelligent systems are integrated into a company, an active effort needs to be made to bring employees up to speed. They imagine suddenly having to deal with dangers like robot arms swinging around them, machines reacting in unexpected ways, or driverless vehicles they need to watch out for. Different people also have different ways of dealing with digital systems. They’re perceived as too complicated by some, while others don’t find them challenging enough. There are many misconceptions and fears we need to overcome. 

If we succeed in doing so, what added value does successful human-machine interaction bring? 
You have to find a balance that enables efficient team-building between humans and machines, with each side boosting the other’s strengths and making up for their weaknesses. This requires a lot of brainpower from a wide range of disciplines, including UX design, psychology, and machine and robot ethics. As for the benefits, improved predictability, reduced costs and freedom for human creativity to innovate are just a few examples.

What specifically do the two sides contribute to this cooperation?
A machine can generate a response from data much faster and solve more complex tasks, for instance. A person isn’t as fast at detecting where, say, a screw has been inserted at a crooked angle. This is easy for an intelligent system, which can then propose several options to its human counterpart. That can be especially helpful in stressful situations when decisions have to be made quickly. 

What role is then left for the person?
Unprecedented situations are primarily where humans shine. Intelligent systems that make decisions based on algorithms have been trained with historical data. This can lead to miscalculations, especially in unforeseen events. People can find creative solutions based on their experience and human abilities. What’s more, they can invest more time in innovation or business models – and bring in many ideas from outside their company, as well. At the same time, intelligent systems also give people time to concentrate on their strengths and skills.  

How should we proceed with the “Industry 5.0” mega-project? 
For the initial phase, accurate analysis is the most important thing. The first step is to conduct a survey of employees who will be working with intelligent systems to find out, for example, where they’d like to receive support or see their workload reduced. Too often, decisions are made at a higher level without involving the people who will work with the machines on a daily basis and experience the growing pains themselves. 

What else needs to be considered?
The second question concerns where we want to end up with the help of increased human-machine interaction. Then you have to figure out what’s possible at a given company in the first place. You can look around at other firms, but that won’t give you a blueprint; there’s too much variation in the types of machines different companies have acquired over time. You have to focus on concrete steps for your individual project: What do the required systems even cost? How can you use them? And above all, you need to know what skills your employees already have and which ones they're missing in order to determine what further training they need.  

What technologies should companies be preparing their employees for? 
That includes every point at which a human operator needs to understand what the current system state of their machine is – and vice versa. We’re talking artificial intelligence, AR/VR, cobots and smart devices. 

And how much progress have industrial firms made here?  
There’s still a lot to do; we’re just at the beginning. You might be able to generate everything you need with today’s technical possibilities, but putting the many modules and puzzle pieces together will still be quite complicated. Companies can’t simply change their machines; even today, that’s still very time-consuming and expensive. Ultimately, helping shape the shift to Industry 5.0 has to be possible and financially feasible for small companies, as well. In particular, the combined specialist expertise required to configure successful human-machine interaction is hard to find in companies today.

So everyone is going it alone? 
We’ll only make progress by working together. It’s now a matter of pooling expertise, because alone, it’s not really a task you can accomplish. VDE has been active in this area since 2018 with its Human-Machine Interaction group. The experts involved demonstrate the required specialist expertise and lend support, including in the form of recommendations for action based on future scenarios involving innovative technologies and a new mindset regarding which requirements should be implemented to integrate new forms of work into companies. Anyone interested in these subjects should feel free to contact me anytime.

Interview: Manuel Heckel