„We need an intimate relationship to machines.“

„We need an intimate relationship to machines.“
Marginal Column
Univ.-Prof. Dr.-Ing. Norbert Gronau

Univ.-Prof. Dr.-Ing. Norbert Gronau has been Chair of Business Informatics, in particular processes and systems at the University of Potsdam since April 2004. He conducts research in the areas of knowledge management and versatile systems. Professor Gronau is the initiator of the Application Center Industry 4.0, the heart of the “MetamoFAB” research project. The Center is a virtual factory, interactive learning factory and research laboratory all rolled into one.

Copyright Photo: flischpic.de/Uni Potsdam


July 2016


Prof. Dr.-Ing. Norbert Gronau from the University of Potsdam knows the requirements for the human-machine interface of the future from his research.

How fundamental is the change in the factory caused by the digital transformation?

It is a metamorphosis because in the factory a fundamental transformation is taking place, the factory is taking on a new form by developing new abilities and properties. The factory after the metamorphosis is fundamentally different from the factory before.

What's going on there in the factory?

A fresh wind is blowing through the factory bringing change to the staff. This is already similar to an upheaval. The machine is no longer just that stupid object executing control commands. It's intelligent, it knows what it's doing, knows how well it's doing it and what new task is already waiting in the wings. The intelligent machine is developing a kind of consciousness. Humans must adapt to this eye-to-eye encounter and develop a really close relationship with their machine. They must also accept that machines are very often right. Because this is in the best interests of the factory. However, we need not fear the reign of the machines. We surely don't want to replace people with machines, but instead make their interaction efficient and clever. Humans will continue to carry responsibility and call the shots.

What consequences does this entail for the interaction between people and machines?

First of all, it's a functional task: The human-machine interface must filter and depict the data from the enormous big-data cloud in such a way that it will support people in their work and decision making processes. In the future there will be a small management information system on each machine. Moreover, a socio-cultural dimension arises out of this intensive interaction. Similar to how the car once found its place in the family as an object of desire or today the smartphone, HMI will be our indispensable companion in the world of work on a daily basis.

Which factors promote their acceptance?

That's fairly simple. As soon as a tool brings personal benefit, it will be accepted. Therefore, I encourage everyone to try out new things. Often times you can see the advantages very quickly. The use of tablet PCs at the Executive Board level is a good example of the utility argument. Managers use their digital companion not because it's a status symbol, but because it allows easy access to all data. And without their PA having to carry four briefcases into the meeting room.

Employees, so you say, are no longer people who push buttons or insert pieces, but rather pilots or navigators. Does this demand completely new qualifications?

Yes, but digitization also helps in this case. We are soon going to experience a symbiosis between learning and work. In the future, the idea that “I am here to learn, not to work” or “I work here, but I don't learn anything” will not apply. Learning and working are merging together and will happen simultaneously. Learning happens at the human-machine interface with completely unique content. The universal course for everyone has thus run its course.

What does this mean for machines?

We need to extend machine intelligence so that it becomes akin to the way humans process information. Humans possess outstanding mechanisms to distinguish relevant from irrelevant. We can filter out unimportant information in no time and ignore it. That's why I'm actively involved in a research project on intentional forgetting. According to brain research, when you filter information content is not deleted from your memory, but rather it can be recalled again with cues. Machines first need to be taught how to do this.

What importance do learning factories have in terms of employee qualification?

A very significant one. Here is the place to experiment and gather experiences. A place to introduce people to the new requirements. The ability to “play around” safely under realistic conditions builds confidence and promotes an unbiased approach. The resulting learning curve is substantial. Last but not least, learning factories such as our Potsdam Application Center Industry 4.0 are a visible expression of the close alliance between research and industry.

With regards to “playing around”, what purpose do “gaming” approaches serve for the factory of the future?

Educational games are an outstanding supplement to the digital HMI. When playing a serious game, each employee can simulate quality issues or new production launches for instance. The “gaming” approach also means a healthy competition to reach the next level. Competitive thinking should not be encouraged, however, but rather we want to playfully promote intelligent, mature people and create performance incentives.

Looking ahead ten years: What concrete developments in human-machine interaction are going to emerge?

Human-machine interaction will use all of our primary senses more and more. Virtual reality and digital wearables will soon be making their way into the factory. So of course in the same way we have been using safety helmets or safety shoes, we will be using RFID tags in the future that will identify us, or data glasses to get our bearings.