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A New York University employee working out of Berlin or digital nomads who move from country to country and set themselves up at different coworking spaces – the world of work is undergoing profound changes as a result of the digitization of all areas of life. A new era is dawning not only for “knowledge workers”, however, but also in factories.
The digital revolution is having a major impact on work
Like the steam engine and mass production before it, the computer began its triumphant advance in the twentieth century. Now we are seeing the next phase of the industrial revolution. In large automotive plants, remote-controlled robots are already welding vehicle body parts together. As yet, they have few points of contact with factory workers and perform their tasks separately, but in future they will work more closely together.
Intelligent and empathetic robots
This is confirmed by cognitive scientist Dr Gerhard Rinkenauer from the Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors at Dortmund University (IfADo). He wants to teach robots to take account of the needs of their human colleagues. Working together with IT experts and psychologists, he reproduces workflows in the lab, questions test subjects, measures brain currents and skin temperature and uses his findings to develop algorithms. He hopes that these will enable robots to adapt to human motion sequences and to detect how employees are feeling: are they perhaps lacking in concentration or even exhausted and in need of a break?
Besides the IfADo, numerous other German research institutions and companies are studying man-machine interaction in the working environment, for example the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), the Fraunhofer IAO and Festo.
Key questions about the future of work
How is the digital revolution affecting us? Scientists in Germany are exploring the consequences not only for society but also for the individual:
- If it is possible to work anywhere in the world, how will this affect people and the quality of their work?
- Which new jobs will be created by digitization?
- What needs to be considered if man and machine work more closely together in the factory of the future?
Will the quality of work change?
“What interests us above all is how the digital revolution will change the quality of work”, is how cognitive scientist Dr Gerhard Rinkenauer sums it up. He believes that there will be a clear division of labour in the factory of the future:
- humans will be responsible for tasks requiring sophisticated cognitive and fine motor skills,
- machines will take care of work requiring endurance and strength.
Technical solutions alone are not enough
Yet Gerhard Rinkenauer is quite certain that technical solutions alone will not be enough, as many other factors will need to be taken into consideration: how can jobs be saved? And how should employees be prepared to deal with these new technical developments? Companies should invest in education and training so that less skilled and older people learn how to handle the new technologies. “Only then can both sides win – those who will reap the benefits of these new forms of business and production, and those who actually do the work.”