Interview

Interview with Dr. Frank Feinbube and Pit Humke (SAP)

both representatives of SAP, Germany. Dr. Frank Feinbube is Head of Strategic Frontrunner Apps & Showcases, SAP Technology & Innovation. Pit Humke is an Expert Software Engineer at SAP Technology & Innovation. Interview by Prof. Dr. Lena Gieseke, Professor of Visual Media Technologies / Technical Direction, Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF, 12th of April 2021.

Please introduce yourself and describe your profession and field of expertise.

Frank Feinbube:
My name is Frank Feinbube. I’m a development manager at SAP, a leading German multinational software corporation. Previously, I worked as a developer for several years. My background is in technology and innovation.

Pit Humke:
My name is Pit Humke. I am a senior software engineer. I have been working for SAP for almost eleven years now. I started at SAP as a student in the joint international business administration and information technologies program. After my studies, I joined SAP full-time. Since then, I have been part of various departments and projects.

In the FAST45 project, we are interested in the relationships between Institutes of Higher Arts Education and industries. In your work, do you currently have any connections to Institutes of Higher Arts Education?

Frank Feinbube:
Currently, we work with student assistants from related disciplines. For example, we employ students from the University of Applied Science Potsdam, studying design, and students from the Berliner Hochschule für Technik, studying media informatics. To my knowledge, SAP has no collaboration with any art university at the moment.

Pit Humke:
We have many collaborations regarding design and user experience design. Also, several alumni from the University of Applied Science Potsdam from the faculty of industrial design work at SAP. We did a joint project on the visualization of business data in virtual and augmented reality, collaborating with the department for interaction design at the University of Applied Science Potsdam. At first, the visualization project was intentionally broad, and its focus was on an exploration of the topics. We are seeing devices like augmented and virtual reality headsets emerge in the market, and they are becoming more and more mature from a technological point of view. The intent of the project was to elaborate on the implications that we can draw from those technologies for business software. We specifically looked at the visualization of large sets of business data, for example, at cost centers, profit centers, and cost structures.

Frank Feinbube:
The project’s general topic was “user interaction for the future”. As Pit already said, there are technology changes that we observe. If we, as a company, want to make sure that our applications can be used in these new spaces, we have to find out what we have to change. We must follow the question of how to present user interfaces in the future and ensure that people can interact with the information and data they have. In this visualization project, a variety of ideas came from the University of Applied Science Potsdam.

What were your conclusions? Is this something you want to continue working on, especially in formats like AR or VR?

Frank Feinbube:
I think the specific ideas we have as a result of this project could go even further. These were the first ideas, but they are not at a point where we can apply them to our products.

But apart from that, we see that these topics will be interesting in the future, and we need to investigate more how we can make sure that people, and our clients, can benefit from these new developments. We want to allow our applications to be experienced with the latest technological developments. Similar to what had happened in the past when mobile applications were a big driver, and everything became accessible through, for example, apps.

We also want to develop similar adaptations for AR and VR in the future. Be it with augmented reality using a phone or even with a headset where you emerge completely into virtual reality. Many of the interaction mechanisms we know today do not work in these new formats. Everybody knows the context menu and what one needs to do to get to the context menu. But there is nothing similar in VR yet, especially not in the standardized formats. If we want our customers to interact with business applications in these new realms, we need to consider the metaphors we want to present, the needed standards, and action schemes.

Moreover, we have to think about how data is presented and other aspects like icons or gestures. This is a broad field, and we are convinced it will be highly important in the future. We are trying our best to come up with concrete scenarios where we already use new technologies and then try to generalize from there and thereby work towards the future.

Do you see any possible fruitful future relationships with Institutes of Higher Arts Education or artists that go beyond design? Do you imagine any other use cases or scenarios where you could benefit from collaborations with the arts?

Frank Feinbube:
To express art, you need tools. With technology today, you can do much more than in the past. For example, AR and VR are spaces where artists can express themselves now. These spaces have not been there before. Another example is machine learning. Machine learning allows people in general, and artists specifically, to speed the work up by automating redundant tasks. These might be tasks that are not that important to the artistic expression of an artist but are still part of the process. For example, I saw artists using 3D software to set up a base scene. But the lighting, which should just look realistic, did not work the way that artist wanted it to—without any artistic intention. With our technologies today, we are in a new situation. We have more impressive results in a shorter time. New methods allow people to iterate faster, abandon ideas or failed attempts, and come to the very essence of what they want to create. I think supporting artists in more ways to express themselves is important.

Moreover, it is essential to iterate together and thereby figure out what artists want from these tools, what they need and how they apply them. In this sense, a close collaboration makes sense for the tech industry in order to support artists better. And artists, as customers, can give valuable feedback on what they want. Today, we see movies and computer games at scales that haven’t been possible. A first development was that they increased in costs, but over time they also increased in quality. This is only one small area. But this observation can be transmitted to other areas. This makes us realize how much a few people can achieve today using technology.

The second point is that, in my opinion, to drive the technology sector, we require the insights of artists because they have a strong imagination. Artists can show us what is possible. They make us imagine things we would not have been able to conceive. Working in business and technology, we usually have a small, directed focus. But we must think about social change and what may be out there in the future connected to that focus. We must include broader topics in our visions as well. And we try as much as we can to look very far into the future and see the trends, but in some ways, that does not go far enough. Artists are trained to look at various developments from different perspectives. For example, when you watch a TV series like Star Trek or The Jetsons from the seventies, eighties, or even before, you already find tablets and similar devices. Today, we know that people got inspired by these artistic utopias and finally developed such devices and made them a reality. These were fruitful ideas from the perspective of the arts that entered our field. I think this does not only hold true for technology. It also holds true for business models in general. Here the aspect of changing societies comes into play. Artists reflect in their work on society. They get the trends, figure out the essence, and reflect that back to society. It is highly important to start thinking about what these trends mean and where they come from, put them into words, and develop a language that everyone can use to make sense of what is happening out there.

Pit Humke:
I’m slightly struggling with the ontology and differentiation between where the designer’s work ends and where the artists’ work begins. While we have many designers in the company, and we work with them daily, their work is usually bound to a specific question or task or something that should be produced or that should work for a specific purpose. I think this is not necessarily the case for arts per se. It is difficult for me to grasp that appropriately and merge it into a corporate context.

Lena Gieseke:
We will probably never be able to answer this question: How to define the arts? I always like to think about it this way: For me, art happens when you create something that has a meaning beyond the obvious, beyond functionality and pure aesthetics. Art transports you beyond those factors. I agree that design often has a clear function. However, what makes it so complicated is that what transports you is very individual. Some people get emotional when they see a certain thing and others just say, “I don’t get it”. This is what makes art so hard to understand and so exciting.

Coming back to institutes of higher arts or artists in very general terms. Do you have concrete intentions for cooperation? I know that SAP has business-oriented products. Do you see any options for collaborations with artists for you specifically?

Frank Feinbube:
In the past, we worked with a number of universities on a variety of topics. I think for us, the initiative of the FAST45 project is a good reminder that there are other universities that might make sense to collaborate with as well. We currently have several engineers on the team. And for my specific team, we hired numerous designers to get the designer perspective, whereas before, we had many software developers and only very few designers. I think these changes came up with the steps we made to innovate how our campuses work. We are about to build a new building in Berlin and have the big SAP campus in Walldorf in the southwest part of Germany that we want to reinvent slightly. Here we are thinking about working together with artists because we want to have completely new ideas and want to improve on the now. There are already ideas like, for example, turning everything into an augmented reality game or having interesting art pieces with some relation to SAP. I also think it makes sense to bring the two worlds together. I like the wake-up call and love to work with universities, try this out and see where it will lead us.

Pit Humke:
And as mentioned in the beginning, the Innovation Center Network is specifically dedicated to engaging academia and building academic relationships. This is a separate unit, though, and we cannot really comment on what is going on there. Maybe there are collaborations that we don’t know of yet.

You already mentioned the role of the arts in envisioning futures. Is there anything else where you see an impactful role of the arts or creative work in general for our society? Where do you see the most influential areas?

Frank Feinbube:
I recently learned that there is a concept called metamodernism. In our work, every time we think about new software, we talk about modern software. In fact, “modern” is an old term. Following the idea of metamodernism, subsequent to modernism, there was postmodernism, and now we are in the time of metamodernism. This is an example of what I said before, finding words describing how we as a society in our time perceive and think about the world. These words and concepts help us to reflect on human life. I think this is highly important. It is important to not only jump borders but also have a mirror and reflect on what we currently are and our priorities. This is more on the social side and psychological side. It is indispensable that people think about these things. We must also find a language for it and figure out the differences. For a business, this is something where we can see opportunities because, in the end, our customers are humans. If people like something or reject something else, this causes changes. For us, it makes sense to pick up these changes and reflect them in what we do. Another example is the visual part of our work, where we build user interfaces appearing close to what people expect. People became tired of shadows and fancy colors, which were prominent when the web started. They wanted the interface reduced. This is what we still want today. If you do not manage to figure out what the audience wants, this can cause problems.

I think with metamodernism, you have a good idea of the framework, meaning you have a way you want to tell your story. It also provides the vocabulary you want to use for marketing and sales. For example, in the past, you might have presented a product in a funny, even cynic way. Today, you usually want to present it with an underlying good intention. Today, you would not just shock people with your advertisement. They tried this in the past, and maybe it worked for some time, but now it changed. I think it makes sense to have some form of framework that helps to reflect, have best practices, and see what works and doesn’t. But I would not say that the whole industry already understands the value produced here.

Connected to this topic, I would like to know: What do you think are the most influential trends and developments in society, the economy, and the arts in general?

Frank Feinbube:
Currently, sustainability is a huge topic. It is influencing the way we define ourselves. Sustainability represents a stark contrast to the consumerism that was dominant in the past years. There is a gap, and we as a society do not know how to fix it. As a company, especially a company like SAP, we are in the position of having a big lever. If we build something more sustainable and improve on that, all our customers will benefit from this. Among our customers are the top 200 companies worldwide, and we have a very big impact. If we figure out something substantial in which we are more efficient or more sustainable, this will change the world. This is why sustainability is one of our biggest priorities at the moment.

Furthermore, tooling is a topic that will be relevant in the future. At the moment, remote work benefits a lot from tools. Remote work would not have been possible on this scale a decade ago, or maybe even five years ago. This shows that we have improved the way people can work. The same holds for machine learning and all the other trends in technology we are currently seeing. All these trends improve productivity and creativity. The ways we can work and the things that we can create improved. This will probably be relevant in the near future, and collaboration will be important here.

In addition, as I mentioned before, improving productivity and the way people can express themselves are highly important.

Another major trend is flexibility, meaning that tools become more adaptive to the user instead of having something fixed like we still have today. The user has to learn how to interact with the tool. But there already has been a big mind shift regarding the nature of our tools in the last few years, and there will be more.

Pit Humke:
I think the two main drivers that are complementary but develop parallel are job automation and population increase. On job automation, we are also working at SAP. I assume that in the next ten to twenty years, or maybe more, all tasks that can be automated will somehow be automated. At the same time, we have the driver of population increase worldwide. These two drivers are working against each other. They will manifest in topics like sustainability, globalization, and changing demographics. I think that the nature of human work will dramatically shift as well—practically and in terms of what we define as work. If we automate everything automatable, that means that human value creation will have to focus on things that cannot be overtaken by machines or that we do not want machines to take over areas like decision-making, collaboration, or even teaching. That will be one of the major shifts in the next decades.

Frank Feinbube:
Looking at history, this is a situation that happened before. In the past, about 95% of the population worked in agriculture. This was the area where almost all jobs were. Of course, the whole idea of work was different then. But it is interesting: the world’s population was in total about one billion people, now we are almost eight billion humans on earth, and only a few are working in agriculture. Most people are working in totally different fields today. This new kind of work is probably more valuable and gives people more chances to express themselves. Many people get much more satisfaction from it instead of doing the same things repeatedly. Maybe there is also a huge potential and not only a conflict in this shift of work.

Mr. Humke, you said we do not want some jobs to be automated. What kind of tasks or jobs or roles should not be automated?

Pit Humke:
I think we won’t want to automate tasks in regard to decision-making processes. Let’s take the example of a hiring decision: Many faceted data points lead to a hiring decision. These are complex decisions impacting a team or company, and nobody would feel comfortable having a machine make the hiring decision or decide which colleague you should work with. There are some inter-human factors at play that machines cannot grasp. Even if we knew to teach a machine to characterize humans, we probably would not be willing to do that. There are many cases where we as humans would probably decide that we do not want to leave these decisions to machines, in the business field but also in the social field.

In the field of technology and technological developments, what will have the greatest impact within the next couple of years?

Frank Feinbube:
I think in the near future it will be remote work. We will improve on the technology that allows people to work together wherever they are.

Furthermore, in many workflows, currently, when someone has a rough idea, it usually takes a very long to come to a state where others can see what this idea looks like. This is the point where others can decide if they want to proceed with the idea or not. An exemplary solution could be tools that allow people to describe a picture or something that they want to create and have the tools that transform the textual description into a real picture. In the next step, people could iterate, become more precise, and add details. And at the end of the process, there would be an outcome that is visible and helpful for other people. Right now, the time between being in a creative mode and having the idea and having a result is too long. The iteration cycles are long. I think with technological future developments, we can put all development steps closer together and make it more interesting and fun to iterate and come to a result.

Pit Humke:
In the arts specifically, non-fungible tokens and how a whole economy around non-fungible tokens could be developed to sell and resell art and monetize art is a huge topic at the moment. There might be some potential to this. But I’m not versed enough in this technology to have a strong opinion on this topic.
I tend to agree that virtualization, meaning that we are virtualizing things or actions that used to happen in the real world, is a trend. It is going to cause major changes we will see in the future. These changes have already started with, for example, the virtualization of working spaces, as already discussed. As we see right now, everybody works remotely from their home office. That raises the question: Why do we have offices in the first place if we can virtualize all of that? I think that metaphor holds for many places and scenarios. We already see the trends that factories and other buildings are built in the virtual world before they are built in the real world. Planning and simulations become more and more important.

We could also ask: Do we still need university buildings? Do we still require the number of classrooms we currently have?

Pit Humke:
Yes. All of this goes back to the question of the value added to having that physical location in a specific context. Often it is human presence and exchange, but I think for contexts like libraries or meeting rooms, these will be negligible in the future.

When it comes to learning contexts, it also depends on the specific kinds of learning. When, for example, learning specific algorithms or math, I observe that many students prefer to do many of the tasks on their own now with their own speed. I do think there are various advantages in online learning that we will keep.

Frank Feinbube:
This is where it touches on psychology again. We focused on building advancements from a technology perspective, which is challenging. I think we also have to consider creative ways to make technological changes work for people. It is important to find ways so that people still feel safe and connected. But this is again a societal question. It also has huge implications for sustainability. If everybody is at home and not traveling worldwide, I think this will improve many sustainability factors.

Maybe we can also discuss the inversion of the question: What would you say are current technological trends or hypes that are overrated that you think will not hold up to their promises?

Pit Humke:
I am very critical of blockchain technologies, to be honest. This contradicts what I said earlier about the NFTs, which are also based on blockchains. I feel it is talked about more than what will come from it in the end. This is at least my feeling. These things catch people who want to get rich quickly with things like Bitcoin. Once it is inside the media cycles, it is quickly made big. But I tend to think that we will see this trend cease slowly.

Frank Feinbube:
I would say machine learning is a special case. We have the idea that machines can do what people can do. I think machine learning is a good tool to support people. These are useful algorithms to do repetitive tasks way faster than we, which is basically what tools have always been doing when we look into history. They improve the way that people work by speeding up processes. We see new possibilities now that did not work before, and I acknowledge these nimprovements. But still, machines and machine learning will not replace humans in decision-making or fields like the arts. I think people are worried that there will not be enough jobs in the future as machine learning will take on most jobs, but this is not based on reality.

Lena Gieseke:
Yes, it is a big hype, but if you look at what is currently actually possible, there is a discrepancy.

You mentioned the topic of sustainability in connection to technological developments. You already gave the example of traveling, which can be reduced with the help of virtual collaboration. What comes to my mind is that as soon as we have a new device, we throw away the old one. You also said that sustainability is a driving force for SAP for the years to come. Of course, you cannot tell us any secrets, but do you maybe have concrete ideas about how especially technological developments can become more sustainable?

Frank Feinbube:
Another aspect that SAP is currently focusing on is more efficient supply chains and more efficient planning. A big problem is that we throw so many things away and that they are shipped all over the world. This is where our software directly helps to improve.

Apart from that, I think if we manage to reduce the impact of blockchain, that might be helpful because you spend so much energy on all these mining efforts, which is a waste of energy. There are approaches to get the same benefits you have from blockchain, but in a way that does not require all this mining, at least not at the same energy consumption rate. This will be helpful for acting more sustainably in regard to technologies.

Another point is making it possible for people to collaborate with teams virtually as we are doing it now and work together virtually. This is where AR/VR could become relevant, as they could offer possibilities for people to work together, for example, in a virtual office or something similar. I’m not sure if SAP is a leader here or if this will be developed by, for example, Zoom or Microsoft. But we want to focus on bringing our tools into the space and making it possible for people to work with their data, interact with their backend systems, and control the logistic pipelines.

These are concrete ideas and aspects where we can improve. But I think it is important to see the bigger picture. For SAP, sustainability is not only about reducing the waste of energy. For us, sustainability also means creating a culture and a world that can be sustained in the future. This also includes topics like equality and providing the same opportunities for everyone.

Lena Gieseke:
I agree. The sustainability goals defined by the UN also cover these different layers. It is a very complex field.

Frank Feinbube:
Yes, absolutely. We focus on all of these goals for SAP as a company and as a thought leader for our customers. We do not only focus on the ecological part.

The last question is about the distant future in 25 years: How do you imagine SAP or your field of expertise evolve in 25 years? Do you have any utopian or dystopian visions?

Pit Humke:
That is a tricky question because one of the core tasks of the Innovation Center Network is to foresee the future and keep SAP ready. “Future proof SAP” is what they call it. This network’s objective is to ensure that we are technologically and culturally ready for the things to come and to ensure SAP’s prosperity in the future. I imagine that will become more and more relevant the further we go into the future. In terms of the overall direction and our missions, I do not see many changes to come in the next 25 years due to the fact that we are already so broad in the missions that we currently have.

Frank Feinbube:
Maybe not in 25 years, but further into the future, there will be some big changes that we already see developing.

One is the augmentation of humans with the help of smartphones or glasses and maybe even with some integrated technology. There are already, for example, research projects working on brain chips. This will change our perception of the world. This is likely not something we will see in 25 years, but more about 100 years in the future.
There will also be Biolabs and bioengineering developments that you can get at home and create your own bacteria, for example. Regarding innovations in the biological field, we have already made vast steps. Possibly we will create bacteria that will eat up plastic or will change our atmosphere or can somehow be tailored to help with production processes in the industry or heal people. I think bioengineering is already at a point where it might change how the future will work. Maybe we will have self-healing products in the way that your phone falls down, but then it heals or repairs itself somehow. I think there is a lot of potential, and it is really hard to see what is possible in this field because, on the one hand, you need a very specific understanding of the field. You must be trained for many years to understand what is happening. On the other hand, you do need creativity, like an artist. Bringing the two together is also something that is not easy.

Another field is our living environment. Currently, we only live on earth, which makes it very convenient for us to talk to other people via the internet because the speed of light is not a problem. But if we started a colony on Mars or Moon, it would be much harder, there would be a delay. This will impact all the technology because technology usually expects to talk to other services and get instant results. If, for example, the speed of light became relevant, that would change how technology needs to be built. If this ever happens, this will also be rather in 100 years. Somewhat closer, maybe in 25 years, are augmented cities. We try to build digital cities. Some countries have started this already. It is about planning and creating a city in a sustainable way or planning it for autonomous driving. In this digital city, you have all the information to solve difficult problems within the cities we have today. Moreover, you are able to interact with the whole city as a customer, as a person who lives there as a citizen. This is also perhaps something that might be very different from how we currently work and live in cities.

A follow-up question to you, Mr. Humke, when you said that SAP Innovation Center’s task is to be future-ready, what does this imply? What are the skills needed?

Pit Humke:
I think there are two components to that. One is foresight, and the other one is preparation. We internally have many processes and methods to cover both. Regarding foresight, you require a picture or, in fact, many pictures of what might become important in the future. We have activities, for example, the technology radar and future casting sessions, and various other things to look far into the future and draw possible or plausible scenarios. The next step is to rank them by how much impact they would have on our company, how probable they are and what their implications are in terms of how we can prepare now. This leads to the next stage, the preparation phase. If we have identified plausible and probable scenarios that might affect us in the future, how can we immediately start building solutions, either technology or other things, to be prepared for that? Many of these scenarios have very long lead times. If we are talking about something that will happen in 20 years, you cannot just say, “Okay, if this is going to happen in 20 years, let’s build this thing in the course of six months, and then will be all covered.” This is not going to work out. You absolutely need a mechanism for continuous revision and adaptation, which is the core competence of the Innovation Center Network.

Frank Feinbube:
Different processes and steps interact for future thinking at SAP. We have somebody who is a futurist, and their only task is to talk to future experts from different fields, go to conferences and learn about and collect all the cool and crazy ideas that are out there. Then we have teams building prototypes, evaluating current technologies, and figuring out if they make sense or not. For example, quantum computing is something we looked into. Then we asked, “Is this something we need to invest in now and to have ready for our customers in five years?” If we decide that this is something we want to invest in, we grow it slowly by increasing the team size and establishing a department, et cetera. For machine learning, we did that to give another example. At SAP, over one thousand people are now working on machine learning. But that department started with five people only who evaluated if this is something important for our customers. Then we transformed it into what it is today because we were on the right track.

Lena Gieseke:
Interesting. That was really insightful. Thank you for this talk.