Alexander Mankowksy We want to develop intuitive cars

Alexander Mankowsky not only studies what the world of mobility will be like thirty years from now, but does something about it. Here, he discusses the future of man and machine.

How do you see AI being integrated into the car of tomorrow?

The challenge we have is how to make machines as readable as people, so that we have a safe mobility network. When we drive, we mind-read so that we do not bump into each other. A mobile robot must make its intentions readable, to signal what it can do and what it cannot. It’s therefore important that the car of tomorrow can negotiate effectively, whether that’s on the road, on the sidewalk or inside a house. The aim is for a co-operative coexistence.

I would also like to avoid the term Artificial Intelligence as it suggests an imitation of human intelligence. What we really have is Machine Intelligence (MI) - which will soon be everywhere. It will not so much be integrated into a single car, but process the correlations and patterns of the system it works within. Once we are working with autonomous cars, mobility will be seen as a cooperative task, involving us human beings and autonomous machinery.

As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous and frictionless, is there a danger we will understand it less?

Yes, it’s a pressing issue and we have to teach people about it as early as possible, preparing them for things such as automated and electric cars, explaining what they can and can’t do. Everything should be frictionless in a manufacturing plant to ensure maximum efficiency, but your life in the city should not. There is a value in getting lost, in overcoming obstacles. I think over time, we will learn that friction is important for experience and learning, that a life without friction is totally boring!

Also, people talk too much about innovation and not enough about progress. We must be mindful that technological innovation and social innovation both work together and towards a goal of true progress.

I think over time, we will learn that friction is important for experience and learning, that a life without friction is totally boring!

How do you like to work?

The fun part is ideation, which allows me to work in a creative network not only studying what the world will be like and how mobility will change, but doing something about it. Put simply, Future Studies and Ideation means that I look forward at say, the next seven to thirty years, and research possible futures. We then put our learning into practice – one without the other would be like swimming without water.

What I’m serious about is working with avant-garde people, those who take risks - artists for example. Creative people on the border between art and design. One of the reasons I’m in Berlin now is because the scene is very active and diverse.

What was it like growing up in a divided Berlin?

I remember when the Berlin Wall fell, we walked through the Eastern district for the first time and all the signs, everything that had gone before, was meaningless. Everything, all the rules and regulations, were not fixed. I saw and understood that everything relies on our will. We can change most things, if we choose to. Today, it feels almost unbelievable, but as a historical landmark it was very important to me. When autonomous cars were first proposed, people saw it as impossible. But possibility exists, everywhere.

West German citizens gather at a newly created opening in the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz in November 1989.

In a fast-moving world, how much will tomorrow’s cars evolve after they leave the showroom?

In itself, it cannot evolve, as we as a producer have to agree to give guarantees the car is fixed. It can be updated of course, but the car itself will not develop.

Ultimately, we should always be thinking about what we, as human beings, can do with technological tools.

What should great science fiction offer a reader or viewer?

Good sci-fi should offer a multi-dimensional look into the future. It should examine the side-effects or unintended consequences of technology, and always show the power of human agency. In bad sci-fi, technology becomes overwhelming and we project our agency into the technology, relinquishing control. Ultimately, we should always be thinking about what we, as human beings, can do with technological tools.

What technology are you most excited by, in terms of its potential impact?

I’m interested in the future of farming. I’m a grandfather now and thinking of that little baby, what she will need, in the end, is food. The world population is expected to grow to 9.8bn by 2050 – agriculture is therefore a core issue in the context of climate change. We have work together to solve that.

What does humankind provide that AI, or MI, cannot?

Life. MI by itself is totally useless. Today it can be thought of as a type of neural network – but one in which learning is related to the past. As human beings, we are always predicting the future. We cannot be replaced so easily because machines still require an input from somewhere and aren’t capable of nuanced interpretation. At the same time, it’s an invaluable tool that will enable us to deal with the complexity of the modern world we have constructed.

Also, fun. The worst thing I can imagine would be if people invented fully automated Formula One racing without drivers. The fun is gone! I suppose then, that you would need an automated audience too.

I saw and understood that everything relies on our will. We can change most things, if we choose to.

What will ‘legacy’ mean in 2050?

I guess people will look back and romanticize our current time as a 'Wild West' where heroes handled dangerous things like gasoline, or wild machinery like cars and gigantic trucks on their own. They even built their own computers and robots at home. All in all: nothing worked, but fascinating inventors emerged everywhere out of this chaos!

Where is your favourite place to drive (and in what)?

I have two favourite places to drive – one is with my car, a Mercedes 300 TE 24 from 1992, on the often comparatively empty Autobahn near Leipzig. It is painted burgundy red metallic, has a red velvet interior and is still running fast. Therefore it is named Rotes Rennsofa (Red Racing-Sofa). Second best place is Berlin, Flâneur-style, with my bicycle.

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Alexander Mankowsky

Alexander Mankowsky studied Philosophy, Psychology and Sociology at the Free University of Berlin and graduated in 1984. After four years in social services helping troubled children, he enrolled at a post graduate university, focusing on the then new field of Artificial Intelligence. Since 1989 Alexander has worked in the research unit at Daimler AG, initially focusing on societal trends in mobility. This led him in 2001 to his current field of work – ‘Future & Technology.’ He is currently focused on human centered innovation utilising futuristic technological concepts.