Dr. Philipp Schlenkhoff, Founder AI Transformation Institute © Helen Nicolai

27 May 2024

"No one will be replaced by AI, but by someone who uses AI."

Artificial intelligence affects all areas of life and has also confronted the German economy with profound change: Production methods are being optimized, new business models are emerging and the world of work as such is changing fundamentally. But with great opportunities also come challenges - from technological hurdles to ethical issues - and these need to be steered in the right direction.

The AI Transformation Institute, a spin-off of the Deutschen Forschungszentrums für Künstliche Intelligenz (DFKI), has therefore set itself the task of supporting companies in evaluating the latest developments in the field of AI and using them to meet their needs. In an interview with #ai_berlin, founder Dr. Philipp Schlenkhoff discusses how the German economy is faring when it comes to AI, which strategies are proving successful in the implementation of AI tools and how the AI transformation as a whole can be mastered in Germany.

Hello Mr. Schlenkhoff. Can you tell us why you founded the AI Transformation Institute in Berlin?

We quickly realized the potential of generative AI technology. However, many of our friends outside the AI community did not realize the profound changes this technology would bring. This showed us the considerable need for further training and retraining. And why Berlin? There is a strong AI ecosystem here with experts who already have extensive experience with AI and who we were able to recruit for our project.

Generative AI is no longer a new topic.

Yes, generative AI is no longer a new topic. In our training courses and workshops, we are increasingly meeting people who use this technology. However, they often lack a deeper understanding of how the technology works. This understanding is crucial in order to recognize which applications are useful in the company and which are not. It also helps less enthusiastic users to better understand the challenges and results to date, to improve and to venture into more complex topics.

How do you perceive the general mood and openness of German companies towards the AI transformation? Are there significant differences between SMEs and large companies?

Last year in May, I had a conversation in which the following question came up: "Who's to say that this isn't just the next pig to be driven through the village after blockchain?"

Initially, the mood was perhaps best described as "technostress". Now it is perhaps more the fear of being left behind, perhaps combined with a little uncertainty: what do I actually have to do now?

But it really depends on the size of the company and the industry. The large corporations have quickly recognized the transformative and, in some areas, disruptive potential. Many of them are currently working on reaching the majority of the workforce on the one hand and on getting the major projects out of pilot status and into operation on the other. Many SMEs in more traditional sectors have been rather cautious and are just getting to grips with the topic.

In your opinion, what are the biggest obstacles that companies in Germany face when it comes to AI transformation? Does fear still outweigh the opportunities of the technology too much?

The technology has great potential. And certainly, with great potential there are also great risks. Nothing new: in Germany, we tend to see the risks. And of course "German Angst" - that is clearly an obstacle. Another is the uncertainty about what I can legally do. And to avoid making mistakes, many people prefer not to use AI at all.

The research department at investment bank Goldman Sachs predicts that a quarter of all tasks could be automated by AI. How should the workforce prepare for these changes, and what role do your institute's training programs play in this? In which functions is there the greatest need in companies?

I am a child of the Ruhr region. The following comparison: The animal keeper from the pit pony also thought the steam engine was garbage. But if he retrained in the metalworking shop and became a machine operator, he could earn a lot more money. And that's exactly where we want to support people. Hence the motto, Mastering the AI transformation together.

In my view, the technology has come at just the right time to fill the demographic gap. We are experiencing this first-hand with our customers, for example in technical customer service. The question is not how much money can be saved through the use of technology, but rather, how can service and the retention of specialist knowledge be maintained at all after colleagues retire?

And what is the greatest need for further training? In our view, the initial focus should not even be on functions, but rather on the topic of hierarchy - namely at the top. Management needs to understand how this technology works, what it can and cannot do. How else are they supposed to lead their organization through this transformation?

How can the AI Transformation Institute help here? It sounds like you are starting with the basics?

Absolutely, you can't do it without a solid foundation. Also to understand the impact on your own job, your own company. And since we were talking about fear - it helps to have a conceptual understanding of how the technology works. We call this 'demystifying'. In this way, opportunities and risks can be assessed objectively and the technology can be used effectively. Our motto is: no one will be replaced by AI, but by someone who uses AI.

What comes after the basics?

After the basics, we clarify where AI can be used, how it can be integrated into processes and which legal framework conditions apply. Our practice-oriented courses offer use cases, practical exercises and encourage participants to develop their own ideas. The content varies depending on the target group, such as managers, marketing experts or AI compliance officers.

How is your offer generally received?

Our offer has been very well received. Keynotes and consulting services in particular were immediately successful. Selling the courses took some time to get off the ground, but it is now going very well.

What projects are you currently working on? Can you already tell us about a few success stories?

We have continuously improved our training formats and are now working on scalable solutions to reach more people with our offering. These will continue to include live elements, as our experience shows that people prefer to have artificial intelligence explained to them by people.

Two examples of success come to mind off the top of my head. Firstly, a specialist publisher that will soon be launching new product features on the market with our support. Secondly, a large media group that is so enthusiastic about our training formats that we have now trained a large part of the management team.

Thank you very much for the informative interview.