Industry Knowledge Q+A: Frank Sonder

A key note speaker, TED Talker, entrepreneur and business consultant, we talked to Frank Sonder about Artificial Intelligence and Technology in the Workplace.

As an experienced entrepreneur, speaker, and business consultant, Frank focuses on human-computer interaction and the impact of digitalization on our society. He is the founder, CEO and creative mind of foresee, a company developing interactive solutions at the intersection of humans, design, and technology.

Read on or click play on the video below…

What do you do day to day?

I’m a freelance consultant – one of the tech guys. I was one of the first ones who could spell blockchain. In my work, I deal with the question “What impact technology has on us as a society?

In the current day, what do you think are the challenges facing the workplace?

We need to really understand what co-working is about. This is not just another office concept but a new way of working and collaborating together as a society. Sharing economies is not understood well enough. Sharing means; I give you my car, you give me your apartment and this is not just another company providing that such as Airbnb or DriveNow. To adapt to that fundamental change is one of the biggest challenges in society, also in the workplace.

What piece of technology really excites you?

So first of all, I think excitement is good but today we also need to see the “dark side” of technology, such as artificial intelligence (which is one of my topics).

If you look at a very nice piece of technology like the Apple Watch 4, it is really well designed and a really great piece of technology. But then you have to look at the implications. So what does it mean if a device like this can be important for your health? It can save your life or it can help Alzheimer sufferers to live better! But on the “dark side”, you can become afraid as you are measuring yourself all the time and there is a 10% misjudgment of data, so you always have to be careful.

Of course AI (artificial intelligence) is exciting when you see what becomes possible. Right now, we are in a position where we really have to figure out how we will apply it.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

It’s also called machine learning. It is where a machine learns something that we don’t teach the machine. So it’s where you don’t tell the machine what to do (which is just simple algorithms) but there is something which develops more or less on its own. It is fascinating but also really scary as there is something like a black box existing. You know the input, you see the output but you don’t know how it’s happened.

What are the potential problems  of Artificial Intelligence?

Take a look at AlphaGo, the Japanese board game. The researchers and developers said “we didn’t really know how it worked.” So we have to be prepared for that situation that we don’t know how the black box is functioning inside. That is already happening right now – we give a lot of responsibility to the machines (look at self driving cars as well).

Another problem, for instance, if you look at HR where there are algorithms already used to select potential employees. The algorithm tells you “these are the right candidates for your company” but they maybe don’t tell you why.

These are all things that happen if we give responsibility to the machine.

Can you tell us about something currently in development?

One field is surely blockchain technology. It’s not so much devices coming out, as we have so many devices. If there is another device coming, we say “well fine, but that’s not this kind of “one more thing” from Steve Jobs”.

If you think about potential applications of blockchain, it has the potential to change all of the business that companies are doing – roles may be taken over by a piece of technology. What I think is fascinating is when you have smart contracts; contracts that run just by software code. All the routes are written in software and self execute. This is fascinating technology.

Again, this is not so much tangible anymore, like in the past, but future innovations will be more software – invisible more or less.

What are the benefits and dangers of human/computer interaction?

The benefits, for sure, are that we have an easier life. We don’t get lost in a city we don’t know, we can book a room at a hotel or Airbnb so that’s fantastic of course.

The biggest danger for us is about data and our privacy. We are not the masters of our data anymore and that’s the most dangerous situation. We can’t decide anymore. Other people decide what is done with our data and who has access to this data and so on. There are good applications and tools we can use because of the data recorded but I guess everybody is a bit afraid of who is taking care of that data.

Coming back to the Apple Watch example, if somebody is recording my heartbeat, it should be my data. That is one of the biggest challenges we have to solve somehow because otherwise we get lost.

What is your view on devices that monitor people in the workplace such as desk sensors?

Again, the most important thing is to make clear the purpose of data measuring and how it is stored. The company has to find a way to ensure the employees know where the data is stored, that they have access to it, that they can deny access to it, or that they can take the data away if they are leaving the company.

So it’s all about trust. If you measure how long people spend on Facebook during their work time, then you don’t trust the people. The main answer is that you have to work on the trust issue from all of the different angles.

As a CEO, are you inspired by how a company uses technology in the office?

I can’t think of one actually. There are a lot of nice offices. When I address the big challenges, as mentioned above, then we have to think more about how a future workplace has to look to solve these challenges and how flexible it is. If you just add some playful elements, a fantastic space is good but that’s just a pre-condition.

What should you consider when designing a new office space?

These days, coming back to the question of if you record data from your employees to improve something, then you have to make that visible and accessible. We have a lot of nice workplaces nowadays – a lot of nice chairs, nice tables, nice surroundings. But it’s always the question of what lays behind.

Do you think the workplace is going to change much in the future?

I hope so! I’m a tech guy so I really hope a lot of things are changing.

On the one hand, we are developing much further in terms of ai etc.

On the other hand, (and everybody who moves into a new building or new office space knows about these problems; how easy it is to adjust your chair or your workspace, if you change that 10 times a day, flat screens with a lot of cables hanging around, wifi or phone connection) we need to solve really simple problems like this.

I’m living in Berlin – we have a terrible mobile connection all over the city. So solve these problems first and then we can think about all this fancy sci-fi stuff.

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