Ever since she was young, Elizabeth Hofvenschioeld has been fascinated by the way new technologies change and enhance our lives and society. As an expert in human-computer interaction, futures research and ethics, she advises Daimler's developers and strategists on how automated driving systems can also satisfy strict ethical standards. In an interview, the mother of two tells us what a 450,000-year-old stone axe and artificial intelligence have in common, and why the challenges of automated driving are not just technological in nature.
Ms. Hofvenschioeld, you deal with the ethical standards for automated driving. What does that involve?
In our team, we advise our co-workers who are involved in the development of future technologies on ethical and social matters. If vehicles drive automatically in the future, this will pose entirely new challenges, such as how humans and machines interact. That is where we come in.
How do you work?
I work with colleagues from a variety of backgrounds, from futures research to philosophy. We work on two levels. The strategic level involves assessing the impact of automated driving on our society. How can new technologies be integrated into the existing infrastructure? What legal foundations need to be put in place? And how can people prepare for when vehicles are driving themselves around?
And the second level?
That is the operational level. We work with engineers, lawyers and system designers to develop safe products for the future. Our job is to identify use cases that are relevant from an ethical standpoint, to identify the potential consequences, and to advise our co-workers. Of course, we cannot be the only ones working on the ethical aspects of autonomous driving. What we need is a discussion within society.
What exactly do you mean by use cases that are relevant from an ethical standpoint?
Let's take a relatively obvious use case: an automated vehicle driving on the road. What is relevant from an ethical standpoint is that the vehicle's sensors that are constantly monitoring the road and the roadside to detect people, for example, correctly. No matter what they are wearing, how tall they are, or what their ethnicity is.
I have always loved technology. That is why I followed my archaeology degree with a second Master's degree in human-computer interaction.
How do the developers implement this?
Daimler uses a range of sensors, and therefore a so-called “redundant” safety concept, in its automated vehicles. Pedestrians, for example, are not only detected using cameras, but also radar and lidar sensors. Both radar and lidar sensors are technically incapable of detecting color, and can therefore also not make any distinctions on the basis of color.
That sounds very interesting!
Yes, our job is really fascinating. We get to see how theory is applied in practice. One example: The much-quoted report from the Ethics Commission contains 20 ethical rules for automated and connected vehicular traffic. But it does not say how these rules can be implemented in practice. That is why, among other things, we analyzed the report and identified the most important points, which we will integrate with our own principles(including the principles for artificial intelligence ) as part of the development process. In this way, we help our developers to make future technologies such as automated driving meet ethical and social standards.
It is also worth mentioning that our work is also an integral part of governance at Daimler. Like legal advice, our advice forms part of Daimler's technical compliance processes, and we are assigned to the legal department.
You originally studied archaeology. How does that go together with future technologies?
It's certainly surprising [laughs]. But the two fields essentially deal with similar questions. There is a field of archaeology that looks at what tools our ancestors used, and the impact of new tools and technologies on humanity. One time, our professor brought a stone axe into a lecture that people had made 450,000 years ago. At the time it was a new technology that may have been of similar importance to automated vehicles in today's society.
Because the axe triggered a technological revolution in the stone age?
Exactly. Back then, the axe made work much easier, and also made it possible to produce other things. And ultimately, the tool changed the way that people think. Futurist Jim Dator once said "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us". So when we talk today about artificial intelligence and automated driving, we have to ask ourselves how these innovations will change our society. I have always loved technology. That is why I followed my archaeology degree with a second Master's degree in human-computer interaction.
I learned to be open to new cultures and to communicate with others at an early age.
Then, in 2014, you started working for Daimler in Beijing.
Yes, I was team manager for a research project there looking at product innovation and the needs of the Chinese market.
What exactly did that involve?
The expectations of Chinese and German customers are not always the same. In the West, for example, the smell of a new car is something very special, and most users associate it with something positive. You can even buy air fresheners there with that fragrance. In China, on the other hand, the smell can be considered to be rather unpleasant. These kinds of inter-cultural differences can be found throughout the world. Our team talked to customers in China in order to lay the foundation for adapting products better to people's needs. Looking at the differences between cultures is perfect for me.
Because you moved a lot as a child, you mean?
Yes. My father is from Sweden and my mother comes from the Philippines. We moved a lot because my father worked in the oil and shipping industries, and we spent time living in Japan, Nigeria, the UK, Sweden and Germany. I learned to be open to new cultures and to communicate with others at an early age.
And communication was then also the focus of your doctoral thesis.
Yes, I worked on "Research Communication" at the University of the West of Scotland. It was a partnership with Stuttgart Media University. My dissertation deals with how results and findings can be presented and communicated in order to make their significance and applicability more apparent, so that companies can use them to develop innovations. And much of my analysis was based on Daimler's Future Research team in Sindelfingen. That was also the first time there that a doctoral thesis had dealt with processes and communication, rather than a technological topic or particular trend.
At the age of 40, I was the group's oldest Ph.D. student at the time (laughs). Daimler truly offers a large number of different career and training opportunities!
At the age of 40, I was the group's oldest Ph.D. student at the time. Daimler truly offers a large number of different career and training opportunities!
Elizabeth Hofvenschioeld (44) Elizabeth "Beth" Hofvenschioeld is the daughter of a Filipina and a Swede, and is married to a German. In addition to German, English and Swedish, she also speaks French, Mandarin and Tagalog. Beth studied archeology, before completing a Master's degree in human-computer interaction. Following her time at Daimler in Beijing she looked for a new professional challenge, which she found as a Ph.D. student at Daimler's Future Research team. Today, she and her team in the legal department advise Daimler's developers and strategists on ethical and social matters.