According to Dr. Emilija Stojmenova Duh, the concern that many people could lose their jobs as a result of the development of high technology and robotics, in particular, is unnecessary. On the contrary, technology can solve many of the problems of an aging western society.
Dr. Emilija Stojmenova Duh is an electrical engineer employed in the Laboratory for Telecommunications at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Ljubljana. She was a founder and is current head of the FabLab Slovenia network; she is director of the Digital Innovation Hub (DIH) Slovenia and very active in the “smart villages” initiative, which is being implemented under the auspices of the European Commission and the European Parliament. She also represents Slovenia in the multi-regional project #HiddenNoMore of the US State Department, which chose 50 women all over the world in important, yet less publicly recognized, leadership positions in science, engineering, technology and mathematics. She is an assertive researcher, and we talked with her about the opportunities created by digitalization and state-of-the-art communications technologies.
To begin with, please explain what a FabLab is.
It is a concept initiated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – there are over 1200 fablabs in more than a hundred countries today. In its essence, the concept is very simple: a fablab is a place with the corresponding infrastructure – computers with fast Internet access, 3-D printers, a CNC machine and some other equipment, the value of which does not exceed 20,000 euros. Such a place can be found in virtually any village ready to cooperate: a cultural centre, school, municipal administration premises, and the like. Also, some companies are willing to make available such equipment for use when they do not need it. People, who develop their ideas with a mentor, meet in a fablab laboratory. There are 28 such locations in Slovenia today.
Can you give an example of a fablab in Slovenia?
The network was established a year and a half ago, so there are no final results yet, but many are in sight. Actually, we are in a fablab right now (the interview was held at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Ljubljana, writer’s note). Here, for example, we have developed an autonomous, four-wheeled robot for use in agriculture. It can move on any terrain (a vineyard or a field of potatoes or maize, for example), it can detect a disease and then sprays the plant accordingly. In this laboratory they made a small weather station that makes it possible to monitor the meteorological data at a micro-location, because air quality and humidity can vary greatly at different city locations. I should also mention this, a microwave oven that cost a few tens of euros. The students modified it to make it suitable for the production of printed circuits for use in modern electronic devices.
You are a member of the European Commission body for smart villages. What kind of project is it?
A group of 13 people primarily deals with the issue of how digitalization and new technologies can contribute to the development and greater population density in rural areas. The group does not consist solely of engineers; it also includes anthropologists, IT specialists, landscape architects, and others. In Slovenia and elsewhere in Europe, young people are leaving rural areas, and the population is aging. In young people’s opinion, existing investments in agriculture have not proved attractive enough for them to stay. Our conclusion is that an infrastructure that facilitates teleworking is important. Broadband Internet is available in most of Slovenia, but we have to take advantage of that infrastructure. It is necessary to provide services and content that can be accessed via the Internet, such as e-health, e-education, e-care, etc. Some of them are in use already. In this way, a diabetic can measure their blood sugar at home and send the results to their doctor, a student can defend their thesis from home, parents can apply for a dependent child’s allowance, and someone can apply for a building permit, or check the value of their property. Many services, however, still await appropriate developments.
The subject of your doctoral thesis was how modern technology could help the ever-aging population. What did you find out?
I was surprised to see that the elderly were very keen to use new technologies. There is an obstacle, though, which is that some modern devices are not user friendly. Samsung, for example, paid a lot of attention to the issue of what a telephone for the elderly should look like: should it have bigger buttons or should there be fewer of them? What they found was that the elderly just needed different instructions than young people, who make use of YouTube. They packed an ordinary phone between two booklets. The first one contained instructions on how to put together the device, and the other contained information on how to turn it on, add contacts, and make a call. Again, it turned out that we have to identify with the user and know their needs when searching for appropriate technical solutions. Technical knowledge is essential, but only a person capable of empathy can be a truly good engineer.
As you have mentioned, in Slovenia the Internet is available virtually everywhere. What is Slovenia’s world ranking in terms of technological innovation?
Recently, there was a panel discussion in the parliament in which they talked about the most in-demand jobs in Slovenia. These include storekeepers, sales assistants, and truck drivers. But no mention of high-technology experts. This means that Slovenia, save for some rare exceptions, is not focused on high-technology industries, but rather on industry with low added value. This gives cause for concern. An international OECD study (2016) revealed that 31 percent of the Slovenian population aged 15 to 65 (this includes nearly 400,000 adults) had a low reading and/or maths literacy level. In addition, digital literacy, which is crucial to make use of the potential offered by the digital environment, is much worse. Another extremely worrying detail is that around 47 percent of the adult population do not and do not want to take part in adult education and training. But in high-technology development such education is a constant requirement. So a lot of work still has to be done.
How to promote digital literacy? This is your area of work.
True. We started with fablabs and strategic partners, which include the University of Ljubljana and the University of Maribor, and established the Digital Innovation Hub Slovenia. This is a national project for the digital transformation and development of digital competences, which consists of three pillars. The first is intended for the economy: companies are presented with the advantages of digitalization, and we help them with digital transformation, thus increasing their added value. The second pillar is education: how to promote more effective and creative learning based on new technologies. Municipalities are the third pillar. They possess a large amount of data, but quite often do not know how to use it. It is important that the data is captured, processed correctly, and used. Today, for example, I arrived to work in Ljubljana from Maribor half an hour later than planned. If I had had a phone application notifying me about traffic congestion due to the opening of a big store, I would have taken a different route.
Quite a few people believe that many individuals will lose their jobs and their livelihoods as a result of the expansion of high technology, and robotics, in particular. What do you think?
I believe that such thinking misses the point. Robots will take over difficult and dangerous work, while people will do other jobs. Nowadays, we are very busy. In my opinion, there will be a great need for a variety of new services in the future. We are an aging society, so the elderly will require different forms of help, which can only be provided by people. What is more, it is necessary to take into consideration that jobs are changing. Robots will not be able to “steal” jobs that are yet to be created and do not even exist now. It is, naturally, easier to imagine existing jobs that might be lost than envision new ones that do not exist yet and could be developed. Recent research by Deloitte has indicated that 800,000 people lost their jobs in Great Britain because of automation and artificial intelligence. But at the same time, 3.5 million new jobs were created. There are similar cases in Slovenia as well. The example of KLS Ljubno is often presented in round-table discussions on smart villages. Through extensive and efficient automation and robotisation of the production processes, the company increased its competitiveness and received orders that enable its development and increased levels of employment. The number of staff went up by more than 50 percent, their salaries are above the Slovenian average by a fifth, and they are paid the highest Christmas bonuses in the Slovenian production industry.
What are, in your opinion, the pitfalls of technological development? Internet addiction has been known to exist for a while, social networks are a world of virtual friends, but in real life, as research shows, we are becoming alienated from one another.
There are many pitfalls, such as data and identity theft. Technology is like a knife: it can be a useful tool or a dangerous weapon. But if we are aware of the advantages of technology and make use of them as effectively as possible, while providing adequate protection against handicaps and risks, the results are excellent. I come from Macedonia. I moved to Slovenia in 2002, when I was sixteen. Then, communication via mobile phones was too expensive; I kept in touch with my parents, who had not used a computer before, mostly over IRC, which was very popular at the time. Now I travel a lot, but I do not have to let my parents know where I am at a particular moment because they follow me on Facebook. My mom says: “When I can see your posts, I know you travelled safely and everything is OK.” Thanks to social networks and Skype, my parents keep in touch with their grandson every day. As regards Internet, phone and other technology addiction, it is us who can and must know when to say: “It is enough.” So, self-limiting is crucial. As for children, it is parents who set the limits for them and raise them.
When studying electrical engineering at the University of Maribor, you were the best student of the academic year, yet the only girl among 149 students. What do you think is the reason that women in Slovenia rarely take up the study of technical sciences such as electrical engineering?
In developed countries, there are very few women in the technical professions and mathematics, while in less-developed countries, such as Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and, I have to say, Macedonia, where I grew up, there are almost as many female as male students. I think that in developed countries the social system works, providing adequate care for the people. In less-developed countries security is not provided and one cannot rely upon the government. Technical professions are therefore more attractive for women, since they usually guarantee better pay and material security.
What is your main area of activity right now?
I am engaged in rural digitalisation, whereas in my free time I work with a group of experts from different areas on the development of an application based on blockchain technology intended primarily for universities and researchers. It is an open-science project and anyone can participate in it. The point is that a community takes part in the evaluation of the quality of a research project. Now, scientific papers are evaluated by reviewers who are not necessarily competent referees for a given area. Using this application, which is currently in the testing phase, papers can be evaluated objectively, and the rating is given the appropriate weight. Our tool has access to various databases that may contain over 200 million published scientific papers, patents, news and similar. It also detects whether a published paper has been withdrawn. It may happen that articles are withdrawn because of incorrect or misleading information. Since the detection of a withdrawn paper has been unreliable so far, researchers have often quoted it and relied upon it in their research.
Another extremely worrying detail is that, according to an OECD research, around 47 percent of the adult population do not and do not want to take part in adult education and training. But in high-technology development such education is a constant requirement. So a lot of work still has to be done.
The original interview is published in National Geographic Slovenia, February 2019
Author: Marjan Žiberna
Photography: Katja Bodovec & Arne Hodalič
Translation: Pavla Bassanese
Proofreading: Paul McGuiness