Ulrich Spiesshofer sees a future where artificial intelligence (AI) “will change the nature of work — not by replacing humans but by augmenting capabilities.” The company he runs, industrial conglomerate ABB, is at the forefront of a new age where AI and humans work hand in hand. 


In the second part of a wide-ranging interview with CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer, we discuss how AI is changing the future of work, how humans and AIs will work together in the future, and how he’s pushing other leaders to take responsibility for training and reskilling today’s workforce to ensure no one is left behind.



Q: We’ve all seen the stories — that AI is a risk to the future of work, forcing a mass reskilling of the workforce, or even widespread redundancies. In the context of the workforce, AI tends to be treated as either a risk or an obstacle to overcome (new skills required, jobs lost).


Too often people don’t hear about AI’s opportunity to actively help humans to do more and maximize their potential. Tell us more about AI’s ability to help employees — and the companies that employ them — maximize their potential.



It is increasingly becoming clear that AI will change the nature of work not by replacing humans but by augmenting human capabilities.


With AI, machines can learn from data and behavior patterns, which means they are becoming more  adept even expert — within disciplines. On individual tasks, machines have long outperformed humans. With AI, machines can master entire processes.


Delegating routine work to machines allows humans to focus on areas where creativity and intuition are needed and that are between disciplines — where innovation actually takes place. For example, with Salesforce collating and analyzing customer data from across our organization, we can gain a 360-degree view of the customer, enabling us to formulate the best solutions and value propositions for our customers.


With AI, we will be able to identify our customers’ future needs, so we can not only help them drive efficiency and productivity today, but also help them understand how their business models might need to change in the future.



For employees, work becomes less a case of completing tasks — the machines do that — and more about understanding, conceiving, planning, and developing innovative organizational structures, processes, technologies, and solutions.


Q: Peter Norvig, Google's Director of Research and author of the “most popular AI textbook in the world,” said in this interview, “We don’t need to duplicate humans. We want humans and machines to partner.”


What does that partnership look like, and how can companies prepare to create those partnerships?


The human-machine partnership is central to what we are doing at ABB:we are building machines and robots that collaborate with humans, with each exercising their own special strengths and skills to achieve higher levels of performance and productivity.


In 2015, we introduced YuMi, a groundbreaking small-parts assembly robot, designed to work safely alongside humans. The robot doesn’t need to be programmed in the traditional sense; it can be taught what to do by manipulating its arms. In 2017, YuMi was taught to conduct an entire symphony orchestra by a conductor with no previous programming expertise or experience.


YuMi’s designers recognized that humans and machines have distinct strengths and weaknesses, and that the human-machine partnership must take advantage of those.


Machines have better memories than we do; they are better at sifting through large amounts of data and beat us at precision tasks that require great consistency. Humans, on the other hand, are creative, intuitive, and innovative.


YuMi can learn to conduct the orchestra, but it is the human who composes the symphony, directs the performance, and — what we should take care to remember — is the audience for whom the entire performance was conceived and created in the first place. We are not working for machines; they are working for us.



The AI organization is going to be a very different place than the organizations we are used to. The command and control hierarchy is giving way to a values-driven, collaborative culture, which recognizes the value of human creativity and diversity. The organizations that will thrive are those that earn and deserve the trust of their customers, employees, and stakeholders — and that nurture those relationships with superior customer service and by supporting their employees’ development, for instance, through lifelong learning.


Q: Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”


McKinsey research suggests that between 75 million and 375 million people globally may need to switch occupational categories by 2030. The World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs” report found that 35% of core skills will change between 2015 and 2020.


As companies come to terms with their responsibilities in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a key focus must be to empower and educate their employees to keep up with the pace of change.


Do you think businesses today are investing enough in human capital to bridge any coming skills gap? What steps can business leaders take to ensure they prepare their workforce for the likely disruption ahead?


Given the rapid pace of technological change, a significant portion of the workforce will need to continually upskill and retrain for new positions as often as every five years. To do this successfully, workers will need to develop and hone their capacity to teach themselves new skills — and stay motivated enough to do so throughout their working lives. We will all have to work hard to ensure nobody gets left behind.


Many business leaders are well aware of the challenges ahead, and their businesses are building the bridges necessary for their human capital to close the coming skills gap. A key part of that process involves forging cross-sector partnerships that enable leaders from government, industry, and academia to work together on the development of a range of programs that provide new skills and retraining



For businesses in many parts of the world, it often makes economic sense to retrain workers rather than replace them. Retraining can be carried out more efficiently if we take a systematic approach to it:providing people with broader options and deploying diverse models, including apprenticeships, vocational training, and lifelong learning. We need to leverage digital technologies to train more people, more efficiently. Much of the workforce is already online,so we should do more to provide them with access to new skills on the internet.


At ABB, we invest in continuous skills development and provide our employees with access to online learning options. For this purpose, ABB has implemented its own global online learning management system. As jobs become more specialized, programs like ABB’s apprenticeships in robotics and automation have expanded. These programs are developed at both the global level and the country level, so they can be tailored to local needs.


ABB is particularly committed to the apprenticeship model of training, and we have implemented a wide range of apprenticeships. That is why we became a member company of the Global Apprenticeships Network (GAN). The GAN is a coalition of companies and organizations committed to creating work-readiness programs for young people and fostering skills for business success.


We do these things because at ABB, we believe it is our responsibility to help guide people through a changing landscape. Lifelong learning has a central part to play in that process.


This article is part of our CEO interview series. For more executive perspectives on the future of business in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, check out: