Futurologist Ulrich Eberl

“My robot is almost like one of the family”

When it comes to artificial intelligence, opinions differ sharply. TUM Alumnus Dr. Ulrich Eberl takes an optimistic approach: Smart machines can be a great help to us, he says. He has already trained his private home robot to do a great deal.

How will we live in 40 years? How will we work, learn and move around? Will machines soon be smarter than us? Dr. Ulrich Eberl has been examining these questions for almost 30 years now. Born in Regensburg, he holds a PhD from TUM in an area of science that lies between Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Genetic Engineering and was head of global innovation communication at Siemens for 20 years. Following that, he founded his editorial office “SciPress”: Since then he has been researching for books and articles in the leading laboratories of Europe, Japan and the USA and is a sought-after speaker, often accompanied by his little white and blue “colleague” Nao Bluestar, a humanoid robot.

We should make the best use of the systems of artificial intelligence.

In contrast to Western culture with the eternal fight between man and machine, robots are often the “saviors of mankind” in Japanese manga and anime films – and Ulrich Eberl also sees artificial intelligence in the same way: “We will need these adaptive systems,” he says, for example, Smart Cars and Smart Homes for the aging population, Smart Grids for energy turnaround, Smart Factories for a competitive industry and Smart Cities for cities worth living in. “So we should not fight it, but rather make it as safe as possible and use it to our advantage.”

Eberl also has a small robot himself, and he has already taught it a lot: Hamlet monologs as well as dancing and football, for example. Nao Bluestar, 60 centimeters tall and weighing five kilos is “almost like one of the family”. The humanoid robot can do tai chi exercises, raise a toast with a Champagne glass and even buy a pretzel – even if his master had to open the door to the bakery for his little friend. Eberl is convinced that “this is still a gimmick at the moment, of course, but in the future, we will actually live in a community between people and smart machines and will be as natural to us as using our smartphones is today”.

Publication „Smarte Maschinen“ by TUM alumnus Dr. Ulrich Eberl.

Ulrich Eberl‘s recent publication „Smarte Maschinen – Wie künstliche Intelligenz unser Leben verändert“ (photo: Hanser).

Ulrich Eberl loves taking a look at what people’s lives will be like over the next 30 or 40 years. His former employers Daimler and Siemens were primarily concerned with topics such as mobility and energy supply, health, demographic change, urban development and globalization, but increasingly also with the production of the future, digitalization, smart data and the Internet of Things. “Machine learning for image, text and speech recognition in particular has made enormous progress in recent years,” says Eberl. He therefore concentrates on these “smart machines” in his current book.

Robots as narrowly specialized experts, humans as a masters of everyday life

Artificial intelligence will bring great changes to all areas of work. Routine activities, especially in offices, are increasingly being taken over by machines, says Eberl. Yet he does not want to make people afraid. Developers, engineers, architects and designers, marketing and sales people, but also teachers, doctors and nurses – all of them will still be needed in the future. After all, systems with artificial intelligence are first and foremost narrowly specialized experts: They are already exceeding us in certain areas – from quizzes to cancer detection – but they lack everyday intelligence. Common sense as well as emotional and social intelligence will remain the preserve of humans for a long time to come.

That is why Ulrich Eberl assumes that the human professor at the universities will stay where he or she is for a good while longer and will not be replaced by androids. Even if robots could talk to people and be able respond better and better to their needs, charisma and social competence are needed to motivate people to learn and to inspire them to perform at their best. Eberl takes his own robot with him to his lectures and lets him demonstrate a lot, but he does the talking himself – even if Nao Bluestar likes to make a comment every now and again, for example, announcing one time that he had a sore throat. This told Eberl that one of the motors in the neck of his robot had run hot and needed to cool down.