In the Uncanny Valley of Industry 4.0

Reflections on the TV-documentary “End of Shift” and the future of work

Credit: ARD/ARTE

Will work still be the place where we integrate individuals into societies?“ asks End of Shift — The Robots Are Taking Over, a new documentary on the future of work by filmmaker Klaus Martens that premiered last week on German and French public television (I make a brief appearance in it as well). It is a rhetorical question, and although not verbalized by the narrator before the end of the film, it is omnipresent from the first scene on and implicitly precludes all interviews and footage that Martens and his crew captured in Germany, France, Japan, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The topic is acute: An oft-cited Oxford study predicted in 2013 that software and robots will eliminate half of the human work force within the next two decades. This year’s OECD report comes to a less pessimistic conclusion, emphasizing the heterogeneity of workers’ tasks within occupations. It projects that “on average across the 21 OECD countries, 9 percent of jobs are automatable” (e.g. in Germany 12 percent, in France 9 percent, and in the US 9 percent), and low qualified workers will be most affected.

Aside from automation’s practical implications on employment, the bigger elephant in the room is artificial intelligence’s (AI) impact on the future of, well, mankind. Elon Musk and other tech leaders who can be trusted on this matter warn of AI as an existential threat to humanity if we don‘t rush to set up some guard rails. Musk, together with Y Combinator co-founder Sam Altman, Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, and other Silicon Valley heavyweights, have formed the nonprofit Open AI to do just that. And a consortium of tech giants including Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft has begun to explore governance models and ethical standards for AI. When even Silicon Valley is worried, it’s hard not to worry.

Drawing a blank stare

End of Shift tackles both aspects of a future of work without humans— micro and macro — and can be viewed as an unintentional sibling to the recent works of two other keen observers from Europe: journalist Claus Kleber’s journey through the Brave New World of Silicon Valley and Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. Both are equally in awe and terror of the magnitude of the technological changes that are reshaping the foundation of our societies as well as the very essence of what it means to be human.

Unlike these two related documentaries though, End of Shift is more distant, less perplexed or mesmerized by what it portrays. The somber narrator seems to represent only partly the voice of the director who’s firmly present through absence. This gives the film an eerie undertone. While the stage belongs to the human subjects that Martens interviews, End of Shift also provides plenty of limelight to robots. Finally, you realize: their poetically filmed choreographies are more than just interludes — they are the main act.

As for the humans, many of the interviewees are eager to present themselves as fervent apostles of the new age of automation, praising the forthcoming efficiency and productivity gains, and sternly advising businesses to disrupt themselves before others do. The German executives featured in the film, in particular, go to great lengths to promote what they have collectively labeled “Industry 4.0” — a clever marketing term for smart manufacturing enabled by robotics, AI, big data, and VR/AR.

Another German, Bjoern Lasse Herrmann, a startup founder who says he felt like “coming home” when he moved to San Francisco several years ago, admits that the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” a moniker the World Economic Forum has popularized, will produce many losers and “real pain.” Martens uses Errol Morris’ hallmark device, the “Interrotron,” to force his interviewees to make eye contact with the camera, staying on for a second too long to catch an awkward final expression that often reveals more truth than the statement preceding it. In one such moment, Herrmann faces the camera with almost provocative detachment, shrugging his shoulders, as if to apologize that he either doesn’t care or has resigned to something that is already inevitable.

Credit: The Verge/Daimler

“A revolution without counter-revolution”

In scenes like this it becomes clear that the Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed be a revolution without counter-revolution, as Martens observes. For one, the concrete short-term business benefits simply outweigh abstract concerns over long-term consequences for society and mankind as a whole. Secondly, the changes are happening, while being dramatic and fast, somewhat silently and invisibly.

Perhaps the greatest danger may not stem from smart machines taking over but rather from us humans becoming smart machines ourselves, as the INSEAD professor and author Gianpiero Petriglieri once put it. In other words: automation itself has become an automatism. As a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is slowly but surely infiltrating our hitherto humanist values, how we think and how we act. This goes deeper than mere automatibility at work.

The only remaining form of protest can be performed by artists. One of them is a pop-up pianist featured halfway through the film as he sets up his instrument at a public park in Berlin and begins to play a serene solo piece, as more and more random bystanders assemble — avid and apparently touched listeners — forgetting, for a few precious minutes, the pressure cooker of their quantified, augmented, optimized super-selves. It is the most beautiful moment, and in a film about robots, the most disruptive one. “Art is the most important thing right now,” the composer and producer Brian Eno is quoted as saying, and without doubt, he meant now.

Another discordant note is struck when Martens exposes the contradictions within management consulting firm Roland Berger. While one German consultant brims with unconditional tech opportunism, his French colleague is sober in assessing the social implications of Industry 4.0. Both are experts in the future of the enterprise, and they work for the same firm, but the contrast between them is startling. As long as there is dissent, Martens seems to be saying, there is hope.

Being human as luxury good — and means of survival

I am one of these dissenting voices as well. Martens portrays me as the “humanist living in Silicon Valley” — an alien among aliens. In my short appearance I speak about my conviction that ultimately, in a regime of convenience, predictability, and data-driven uniformity our very being subjective, our erratic human-ness, with its unique capacity to imagine, intuit, suffer, simulate, and create other worlds, will be very much in demand — ironically, both as a luxury good and a means of survival.

Being part of the film struck a personal chord for me. More than half a century ago, my grandfather, Frank Leberecht, whom I never met because he died shortly before my birth, worked as a documentary filmmaker, for the same network that aired End of Shift. He earned recognition specifically for his films on the second industrial revolution that was the engine behind Germany’s post-WWII economic recovery, the “Wirtschaftswunder.” Martens‘ documentary closed the loop for me, as a discrete nod to my late grandfather.

As I was watching End of Shift, I couldn’t help wondering whether this generational cycle will continue. How many more industrial revolutions will we witness? Will my grandchildren still be able to make or take part in movies about robots? If yes, then it may indicate that the Fourth Industrial Revolution was not the last, and that we, Team Human, through a gigantic collective effort, somehow managed to survive as a species at the workplace and beyond — despite our humanity being challenged like never before.

You can watch the full 90-minute version of “End of Shift” on ARTE TV online here (in German and French).

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