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Portrait: Sabine Pfeiffer

The impact of digital transformation on the world of work is undeniable. Sociologist Sabine Pfeiffer is currently conducting research to determine its effects. Sabine Pfeiffer has been sharing her expertise with the Bavarian Research Institute for Digital Transformation (bidt) since February.

© Jessica Lederer

She supports the bidt Board of Directors and brings her sociological perspective into the research projects. In addition, she teaches and researches the interaction of people, technology and organisation at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

The only woman in the training company

It was not initially foreseeable that Pfeiffer, born in 1966, would pursue an academic career. She attended a grammar school but decided to drop out in the 11th grade and instead do an apprenticeship. “I found it super exciting, and it was considered very promising at the time,” says Pfeiffer. Her family and friends were not enthusiastic about the idea. However, she says she only felt encouraged by it. “I was at the age where you are defiant and think: now more than ever,” she remembers.

Pfeiffer stuck with it and landed an apprenticeship as a toolmaker in 1983 in times of high youth unemployment. “It was clear to me that it had to be an industrial metal profession because that’s where the future lies,” says Pfeiffer. During that time, CNC machines, i.e. computer-controlled machines, came up. As a result, she was the first and only woman in her training company. After her apprenticeship, she worked in technical support and training for CNC-controlled machine tools and 3D measuring machines, among other things. Then, in 1992, she decided to catch up on her technical baccalaureate. “I wanted to catch up on my A-levels to prove to myself that I could do it,” says Pfeiffer.

“I didn’t originally intend for sociology to be my career.”

With her A-levels fresh, she started studying production engineering, but it didn’t meet her expectations. “I was completely disappointed by the remoteness of the study from practice,” says Pfeiffer. In addition, outdated technology, long obsolete in practice, was taught. So she decided to change her degree programme and try sociology. Initially, she wanted to combine her social science knowledge from her studies with industry and technology in practice.

“I didn’t originally intend for sociology to become my profession,” says Pfeiffer. But she did her doctorate and ended up in science. First, for did research at the Institute for Social Science Research in Munich for ten years. Then she landed her first professorship at the University of Applied Sciences in Munich in 2010. This was followed by a professorship at the University of Hohenheim before she received her current professorship at the Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. She is teaching and researching artificial intelligence (AI) there.

I have always been concerned with the technical change of work. And that has never stopped, except that technological change always takes on different faces.

Prof. Dr. Sabine Pfeiffer To the profile

Currently, she is dealing with New Work and vocational training, among other things. For example, in a robotics lab at the university, she conducts workshops with workers who learn about different types of robots. There, the participants realised that much work must be invested before technology can be used in the workplace. “It’s not like you unpack the robots, and then they take your job away,” says Pfeiffer. Furthermore, the participants should be encouraged to reflect where they want to see digital help in the workplace and bring it into their respective companies.

AI is not a panacea

Pfeiffer sees excellent opportunities for the use of AI in the workplace. For example, it could cope with bureaucratic tasks in the Pflege. There, he says, the amount of documentation has exploded in recent years, putting a strain on staff. “For most people who work in care, it is more fulfilling to look after people than to do a lot of bureaucracy,” says Pfeiffer. At the moment, however, the discourse is more about Pfleger robots – which Pfeiffer, on the other hand, does not believe in. “You can do incredible things with robotics, but as long as I don’t see a robot that can put on a thrombosis stocking for different people in different settings, we don’t have a Pflegerobot.”

For Pfeiffer, AI is not the solution to all problems. Even with supposedly simple tasks, not everything runs according to a fixed pattern, and employees often have to improvise. AI cannot do that. “Some people have naïve ideas about how powerful technology is,” says Pfeiffer. For example, a well-trained AI can make the correct forecasts with a probability of 98 per cent but never 100 per cent, especially when it comes to infrastructure or medicine, which can be dangerous. However, if you know these risks, you can deal with them and use the technology productively. “From my point of view, the biggest problem at the moment is that people are pushing the problems to one side because they don’t want to hear them,” says Pfeiffer. In addition, autonomous systems are not the right solution for all areas of application and problems. “At the moment, however, people are trying to solve everything with it because it is hip,” says Pfeiffer.

Short interview

What innovation would you like to see?

The innovation I want to see is already here: the Internet of Me (IoM). User-centric software that gives users absolute ownership and enables the exchange between end devices without any server structures in between. Local, secure, redundant, non-proprietary.

Who from the digital scene has impressed you?

I’m not impressed by the usual suspects’ VC-driven business models from Silicon Valley. One of my most impressive encounters was Knut Starringer. A Bavarian master craftsman out of a picture book who makes traditional lederhosen. Together with his daughter, the small 10-person company has developed smart workwear for nursing care that automatically prepares documentation based on movement. So highly innovative. And very ethical. Because he has resisted all VC temptations, all of whom wanted the data. But his maxim is: data sovereignty must remain with the caregiver.

As a digital minister, I would…

…systematically involve civil society, which is (not only) active in network policy, in consultation and decision-making processes.

This portrait of Sabine Pfeiffer, written by Janina Gerhardt-Riemer, first appeared in the Tagesspiegel Background Digitalisierung & KI of 12 April 2023. We want to thank the editors for allowing us to make the portrait created for Tagesspiegel Background available to the public on our website.