At this year’s global SAP alumni reunion event, keynote speakers Jim Hagemann Snabe and Björn Goerke raised ethical questions around automation and artificial intelligence.

Digitalization is not about replacing people with machines but about using technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) to extend human ability, former Co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe said.

Snabe called for a new management style to achieve this. Working to a detailed plan, metrics, and reports was not the answer in a rapidly-changing environment, he said: “If the original plan doesn’t work because circumstances have changed, then even more detailed targets and even more frequent status reports are not going to help.”

What was needed, he said, was a vision that was worth striving for, along with the knowledge and skills to make this vision a reality.

Snabe, who is currently supervisory board chairperson of Siemens AG and A.P. Møller-Mærsk A/S, talked about how digital technologies can transform almost every industry, taking electric vehicles as an example.

“If we do it right, the only limit to the improvements we can achieve is our imagination,” he said. The transformation, though, would not be easy, Snabe conceded. One key success factor, he believes, is new and affordable ways of learning, such as Khan Academy. Here, students can learn at their own pace and level. “We can’t protect old jobs but we can protect people,” Snabe told his audience of 320 attendees.

At the end of his talk, Snabe called on the audience to “let people live their dream.”

Dreams and Details – A Leadership Model

Jim Hagemann Snabe has recently published his new book Dreams and Details in English, available at a discount for all SAP alumni and employees. Visit the SAP Alumni Network to find out more about the detailed purchase process and receive your voucher code. All active and former SAP employees can access the SAP Alumni Network via registration. Please note: This discount is only valid until the end of July.

Margret Klein-Magar, head of SAP Alumni Relations and deputy chairperson of the Supervisory Board of SAP SE had invited SAP alumni and employees to come together at the Wirsol Arena in Sinsheim, Germany, on June 15.

The main theme of the event, digitization and responsibility, had been suggested by the alumni themselves, says Klein-Magar: “It’s fascinating to see how the trust within the alumni and employee community grows and how it sparks ideas and collaboration.”

Live Our Vision in Everything We Do

In conversation with moderator and SAP alumnus Torsten Busse, SAP Executive Board Member Adaire Fox-Martin outlined the company’s current intelligent enterprise strategy from the digitalization and responsibility perspectives.

How seriously someone takes their responsibility is evidenced by how they turn that responsibility into action, Fox-Martin said. If a company lived and breathed its vision, then it would be successful, attract young talent, and build a positive future.

It’s Up to Us Now

Björn Goerke, chief technology officer of SAP, talked to the audience about how human and artificial intelligence interact. His talk ranged from the Big Bang to the evolution of homo sapiens and the present day.

Goerke delved into the opportunities and risks of artificial intelligence, highlighting the risks of obedience to authority. He cited the famous 1960s Milgram experiment that demonstrated that people tend to obey authority, even to the point of hurting others, if they believed what they were doing was right. What happens now, he asked, when we grant machines authority? What decisions will we leave artificial intelligence to make? How can we prevent machines from learning our own bias? Who decides which datasets the machine learns with?

Today’s systems typically mastered just one particular task, such as voice recognition or playing chess, Goerke noted. Future ones, though, might have general intelligence and even have social skills, he explained. That raised the question as to whether machines with artificial intelligence could then pursue their own ends, or even tell lies to achieve them. Which decisions would we then leave to these systems? How much influence would we let them have?

Even though there were no definitive answers to these questions, we need to start thinking about them now, Goerke warned. “We as individuals, groups, and companies have to work together to mitigate the risks. It’s up to us now,” he said.

Give Young People a Chance

This year’s event also had a surprise guest: 20-year-old Ciara Judge, winner of the 2014 Google Science Fair. She worked on a research project investigating how a bacterium enables peas and other legumes to take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil where it boosts crop growth. Her project demonstrates how the bacterium can be used to increase the yields of cereal crops.

Judge has achieved something experts believed was impossible. And she did it without funding or sophisticated lab equipment. It took an inquiring mind, the will to solve one of the world’s biggest problems, and an unwavering belief that she could do it. In a passionate appeal, she called on the SAP alumni to give young people a chance.

Felix Finkbeiner, last year’s surprise guest whose Plant-for-the-Planet organization aims to plant 1 billion trees, has since received Germany’s order of merit. And we are certain that we have not heard the last of Ciara Judge yet either.

Watch Replays from the Event

Think Digital, Act Responsibly


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Adaire Fox-Martin on Digitalization and Responsibility


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Jim Hagemann Snabe Speaks at the 2018 SAP Alumni Event


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SAP Alumni Network Celebrates Family Reunion


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Video interviews by Andrea Diederichs, Rana Hamzakadi