I had an engrossing conversation with Dr. Anastasia Lauterbach. Our talk progressed through a large span of different topics, united by two common threads:  AI and people.

One of our 50 Women in AI.

Hybrid AI portrait of Anastassia, her photo as a base + images from the artist she selected, Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Hybrid AI portrait of Anastassia, her photo as a base + images from the artist she selected, Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Anastassia spoke openly and bluntly about the complex challenges faced by many businesses today, and also how these challenges connect to the broader context of topics like education, leadership, and climate change. She shared her frustrations with the world’s political leadership and how they are falling short of improving our education system and training the next generation in the needed problem-solving skills to improve our planet. But despite the planet’s current mess, she noted that AI offers us the way forward. And that in order for us to improve the odds of getting AI to help us solve our problems, we need to be blending disciplines and experiences, bringing together the sciences and the humanities to reach our goals.   

Below is a bit of background and excerpts from our conversation. 

From degrees in linguistics and psychology to the C-Suite

Graduating with a degree in linguistics, followed by a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Anastassia started her career 30 years ago, underwriting insurance for the Munich Reinsurance group. Learning about occupational health and hazards, she wrote three books on the topic, which are still used today.

Currently dividing her time between Austria and Switzerland, Anastassia’s professional experience evolved across companies and countries, including work with McKinsey, Daimler, and Deutsche Telekom. These roles brought her to such diverse spots as New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Norway, Belgium, and Finland,  exposing her to numerous cultures and approaches. She was named regional CEO of Qualcomm, heading their European operations until 2013. As she grew in her career, she also started serving on corporate and advisory boards, including roles with Nasdaq, Dun and Bradstreet, Star Alliance, and easyJet.  Currently, Anastassia works with ExCo, an executive leadership group, to mentor executives going through large digital transformations.

AI explained in plain language to help leaders make better decisions

As regional CEO of Qualcomm, Anastassia had to deal with a number of hardware and software topics, including cybersecurity.  This role led to a request by the USA-based Association of Corporate Directors, to train corporate boards in cybersecurity. In her involvement with this group, she found that many corporate executives did not have the needed knowledge to guide large investments in AI. Many of these senior leaders were not technologists and needed to get up to speed on what AI was and what it was not. 

Spotting this knowledge gap among executives responsible for large tech investments, Anastassia wrote a book to focus on the practical aspects and remove the mystique that surrounded artificial intelligence. 

And I wrote the book, ‘The Artificial Intelligence Imperative’, to explain to muggles and not necessarily technologists, what AI was and was not, and what were actually the driving forces around AI to implement it in practice. And this book sold around 30,000 copies. So I was really surprised because truly, it’s not ‘Harry Potter’. But it was a very plain book explaining things in plain language.

Beyond technology: people and communication keys to strong leadership

While many of her clients were seeking digital and AI-based tools to help them manage data and achieve their goals, it was the people who managed these tools that needed support too. She recognized that despite all of the power these tools had, if the needs of the individuals working with the tools were not addressed, then the technology may not be enough. She saw that first organizations must support their people in communicating, collaborating, and working more agilely.  

Between 2013, and 2022, I was advising large companies to source data technologies and cybersecurity technologies into them. And I noticed that actually, it was not about vendors, it was not about one tech solution against another, it was really about agility, and communication within the organization. So we are all a tech business, but ultimately, we are all a people business.  

Disruption: Major global shifts due to war, climate change, and technology

Zooming out from business-level challenges to the larger global context, our talk switched gears to address the big-picture issues. Anastassia expressed her views on the massive era of change our planet has entered, emphasizing that the only way forward is to enlist the support of AI-based technologies.

What is the future of leadership? What does it mean, to hear disruption? And, of course, the events of February, when Russia attacked Ukraine, with the war in Europe, and everything connected to it demonstrates that we are facing a major, major shift in everything, which we are dealing with. So from one side, we have these geopolitics with huge consequences, and we still have climate change with huge consequences. We are dealing with technology disruption, and we’re dealing with, last but not least, a huge demographical crisis. All of these things can’t be solved without the help of technology. 

The fusion of science and AI to solve today’s huge challenges. Need for automation and increase in skills

Anastassia commented that a significant component of the disruptive challenges includes addressing worker and skills shortages and how automation (often powered by AI) can help resolve this. However, in order to reap the benefits of putting AI to work for us, we need to increase the skills of the working population so that we can build and manage these technologies, And our political leadership needs to step up to focus on this. 

You can’t really solve the energy crisis without the help of technology, you require deep learning, and actually, quantum computing to understand how quantum chemistry works, and, for example, how to solve questions on climate change. So this fusion between science and AI makes for better science. 

And, you know, if you go then into the demographical decline, so that, for example, even in China, by the end of the century, we will have only 600 million inhabitants in China. So it means that we will run out of workers, not just in Europe, but even in Asia. And it implies that we need to automate. It implies that workers on all levels of society are required to gain skills in data technologies and in automation. And at the same time, I’m observing a huge lack of leadership in local politics and European politics around these key topics. I see (in politicians) a prohibitive lack of understanding of technologies.

The need to redesign education for innovation skill sets

Anastassia believes that the educational system in many countries is failing us and that our school programs are falling short of teaching the skills we desperately need today.  Schools must improve people’s ability to innovate and solve problems.  On a positive note, there’s a big opportunity for self-learning online. Below she introduces the topic by talking about the rude awaking Germans faced during Covid when schools closed and kids had to learn from home. 

Because in China, we have compulsory machine learning starting with the sixth grade. But in Germany, when we moved into Covid, schools were not capable of providing homework online. And teachers were biking from one household to another, distributing paper. And I’m talking not about some (poor country), I’m sorry, not North Korea, I’m talking about the leading nation in Europe.  

We are in need of perpetual learning. And there are great opportunities to learn nowadays. So you know, we have a bunch of resources online, we can do a course at MIT online, and we can learn on Coursera. There are fabulous lectures on YouTube, which are free of charge. So if there is a will, we can truly learn. And I think that the school programs all over Europe, and probably the United States, it’s a pile of crap. Because kids don’t learn what is required. And they don’t learn skills, they learn what is completely forgettable. And it gives me a lot of heartaches. I believe that innovation happens on the boundaries between fields. It’s quite rare that innovation happens within the field.  

The key to building healthy ecosystems by linking diverse backgrounds – creating STEMs and Humanities partnerships

In speaking about career paths, Anastassia noted that today, most people progress professionally in a non-linear way, but this circuitous route brings benefits. Having experiences in different companies, functions, and geographies, teaches us to be more agile and flexible. 

She describes how we are all in an ecosystem and survive thanks to interdependencies.  And that we must learn the critical ability to identify partnerships from different disciplines, in order to create healthy ecosystems.

The skill to identify partnerships, this is a very important skill. I think that we need to teach people, especially people in technology, to partner with those who might be from very different backgrounds. I believe that we need to link humanities and STEMS to execute well.

From the Renaissance man to building a modern Renaissance system

Some aspects of the answers for the future may come from the past. In combining disciplines and building partnerships with different skill sets, we might be able to build a better AI-powered machine, one that is capable of solving the complex issues we face today and tomorrow. 

You know, there was such a notion as a renaissance man who was capable of doing math and was capable of painting. And actually, this is what we require, that we need to be helped with technologists and data technologies in AI and AI is one of those which will help us to get back to this renaissance man figure, to solve acute problems of the contemporary age. 

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Contact (Twitter): @DrALauterbach

Website:  https://www.anastassia-lauterbach.com/

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