Prof. Dr. Stefan Heinemann is well-respected theologian, philosopher, and business ethicist with a strong interest in the connections between ethics, economics, and technology. As a featured speaker at the pioneer World Ethical Electronics Forum (WEEF) on November 18, 2021, he will join several other thought leaders in inspiring electrical engineers, makers, and high-tech executives with an open discussion about ethics and sustainable development goals (SDGs). Dr. Heinemann recently took some time to shared his thoughts about business ethics, artificial intelligence, and more.
Prof. Dr. Stefan Heinemann
Prof. Dr. Stefan Heinemann

Abate: Ethical electronics is an important subject to thousands of the professional engineers, students, and makers in Elektor’s global community. Which ethics-related topics are most important to you?

Heinemann: The electrical engineering and electronics industry is not only in Germany but in the whole world a growth market and innovation driver for many other industries ("solution partners"). And therefore it is highly relevant. The two decisive pradigmata for the 21st century are digitalization and sustainability. Without ethics, or in other words, a jointly developed understanding of what is desirable, acceptable, and right, what should be, not just what can be and is feasible. Sustainability is difficult to justify. It is primarily digitalization that can benefit sustainability significantly, even beyond technology-driven efficiency. For this, however, it is necessary that companies, in particular, perceive the combination of both areas as an obligation and an opportunity for ethical and economic reasons. Because without successful, sustainable digitization, companies will ultimately be faced with social challenges that can no longer be overcome, such as climate change. Short-termism cannot be a principle of successful entrepreneurial action. We are all the last generation that still has a tiny possibility to shape the future in a positive way. Let's use it together!
Abate: You will be one of the featured speakers on November 18, 2021, at the inaugural World Ethical Electronics Forum (WEEF) in Munich, Germany. Given your extensive background and wide range of research experiences, you could speak about any number of interesting topics, such as the ethics of digital health economy, bioethics, and ethical perspectives on artificial intelligence. But given the time constraints of the event, you will likely have to focus on one or two core messages. Can you give us a preview?

Heinemann: As a central solution partner, the electrical engineering and electronics industry is an important success factor for practically all other industries, especially but not only with regard to the digital transformation. For this reason, these companies and other stakeholders as well have a responsibility. Not only to make this digital transformation technically possible, but also to help shape it in socio-ecological terms. 

At the level of each specific company, they have to drive its own digital transformation forward sustainably and thus generating competitive advantages in the medium term, not in spite of this. 
Abate: As you can imagine, the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) is a hot topic for many Elektor readers. Would you consider yourself to be more of an AI optimist or AI pessimist? Why?

Heinemann: The optimist thinks the world is the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears that the optimist may be right. I would describe myself as an AI realist. AI is shaping the world, for sure. But who will shape AI? I am a little bit indecisive on this question, but I do think that there are no really convincing a priori arguments that a “strong” AI would actually be impossible. If we do not ethically secure the future and also of course already the present of the further development and the use of artificial intelligence, we might have a artificial general intelligence in our lifetime - which will possibly reproach us for having created it. Currently, we can do strong pattern recognition and a little bit more, Artificial narrow intelligence. An AI realist is convinced that, firstly, “weak” AI will cause serious changes globally in the vast majority of areas of life. These are not welcomed if they tempt us to delegate thinking to machines. Only humans can be moral actors, love, suffer, think, be creative, confused and dangerous, fascinating and boring. This is how it should remain. Although, I have to admit that I am also privately excited by AI science fiction. Mind games can help us to develop the right, smart utopias that we need today to be able to live humanly tomorrow. AI is not simply an evolved technology; it is structurally different but still requires us to point out its place as an instrument. That is what matters: Not to fundamentally reject AI out of fear that the world could become a different, worse one, but to limit it with the will to make the world a different but better one. For companies, AI is a great opportunity to combine digitalization and sustainability to succeed with legitimate business models. This also includes taking a critical look at data security and data protection, doing more than what you absolutely have to legally; but taking social responsibility. 
Abate: We recently asked some of Elektor's social media followers the following question: Which group do you think can make the most positive impact in terms of making the electronics industry more ethical? Private companies, governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, or technical associations. Interestingly, technical associations came out on top, with 48% of the vote. What do you think? Please explain why.

Heinemann: To make the electronics industry more "ethical," all stakeholders have a responsibility. Who can have the greatest impact is always a question of the legal and economic framework conditions? Even though an industry is already doing so, and therefore, advancing sustainability and fundamentally ethical business is a lot, many questions remain unanswered in this phase of upheaval; a framework, there are already good proposals, platforms for dialog and access to political decision-makers and other stakeholders, but essentially the customers themselves, are crucial. Technical associations could indeed make a decisive contribution at this point, because the core of value creation is first and foremost a technical one and thus the credibility of technical Institutions is high in the essential target groups. In the practice of often SME, it is essential to be recommended strategies that can be implemented easily and efficiently, leading to really feasible measures that have a business benefit. In almost all ethically indicated topics, this will also be the case; if there is a conflict between profit and ethics, however, the decision must always be made in favor of ethics; but in the long term, this will also always benefit a stable, sustainable profit.

Abate: Does the subject of business ethics get enough focus in current European university-level business and management programs? Or would you say there is a lot of room for improvement?

Heinemann: Since 2011, as Vice Rector of the largest private business school in Europe, I have also been involved with this topic in an executive capacity for many years. Under the research title "Sustainable Sustainability" as well as in the concrete practice of my own university, I have worked intensively with colleagues to make "ethics" in the broadest sense a fixed component of management education in higher education. This includes initiatives in teaching, research, practice transfer for companies and the management of the university itself. Overall, I think that we are seeing progress today, but still not in the broad sense. Student organizations such as Sneep, where I have been an honorary member of the Board of Trustees for many years, have repeatedly set important accents, many universities are driving the issue forward, and the labor movement is recognizing the legal and increasingly also social relevance of the issue. But we are still far away from where we need to be. Namely, not to make management training globally available, which is not developed cum grano salis but rather essentially out of ethical reflection and develops specific ethical competencies, especially in connection with the economy of digitalization.

Abate: Can you tell us about your current research? What are you working on?

Heinemann: Digital medicine and the healthcare industry are the focus, as ethics and digitization are fundamentally intertwined in them. Today, electronic technologies, digital, smart solutions are already an integral part of healthcare. How this development is to be classified ethically, which future concepts are socially acceptable, how legitimate and successful business can be shaped with it, all these are not simple questions; because health is not simply a commodity, a good, a service, but a human right. 

As a theologian, philosopher and business ethicist, I am interested in the connections between ethics, economics and digital medicine. For example, I teach health economics and medical management, participate in critical research, and engage in volunteer work for these connections in diverse contexts. From a clinical perspective, I am influenced by Essen University Medical Center, where I am the spokesperson for the Smart Hospital ethics ellipse and work in concert with committed players from a wide range of fields. In addition, I advise companies in the healthcare and innovation industry and have a currently under-realized joy in start-ups myself. After all, I can rejoice with many successful founders and, in particular, I am driven by the insight that the world is the way it is because we can do in it what we are meant to do. An ethic of digital medicine and the healthcare industry would be well advised to rely neither on alarmism nor on technology euphoria, but on a balanced, sensible middle ground that uses digital technologies in the interests of patients and professional system players. Because this approach is compatible with what I consider to be the indispensable medical core ethics.  We can still shape the future. Also, and especially, from Europe and Germany. That ethics is not only exhausting, stressful and unnecessarily costly, but on the contrary also promotes economic and technological success, is a philosophically correct insight - which, however, has not infrequently been challenged again and again by the bureaucratic opacity of the German health care system. In order to be able to tackle market- or policy-centric system offerings without tough enforcement regulation, legitimate innovation must be encouraged - which is increasingly happening (but still to a significantly too small extent). I perceive the digital transformation as a historic opportunity to make better medicine available to all, economically feasible, and attractive to legitimate business models. This drives me, keeps me awake, the sinews under tension.
Abate: You spend a large portion of your workdays thinking about ethics, medicine, and technology. Is there a single topic that keeps you awake at night?

Heinemann: Health data, especially Genomic data, and its intelligent use are the decisive factor. Even though data may not be owned, even though data may not currently have any discernible economic value for the individual - in the aggregate, structures will form which - it is to be hoped - will move the patient to the center and not, as is already the case today in the data economy, leave him at best watching from the back ranks as he uses his data to contribute to significant developments which, in the end, he may not be able to use himself. Legitimate, sustainable business models for health data utility are the holy grail. The positions oscillate between cooperative models, the consistent rejection of private-sector use, and the simple reference to irreversible developments that have already been underway for a long time, especially in the USA and China.  In Germany, the course has been set. However, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that developments in prevention, diagnostics, therapy and aftercare actually reach the healthcare system on a regular basis. But this is the only way to create markets that are not there for the sake of markets qua growth, but for a higher purpose.

The WEEF 2021 Program

The WEEF 2021 team's mission is to inspire electronics innovators with an open discussion about ethics and SDGs. On November 18, 2021, the program will feature informative talks about ethical issues important to the electronics community. Notable electrical engineers, academics, journalists, and electronics industry executives will address several important topics.
  • Dirk Akemann (SEGGER)
  • Johannes Brenner (Leuchtturm-Unternehmen)
  • Markus Brenner (brematronic)    
  • Margot Cooijmans (Philips Foundation)
  • Stuart Cording (Elektor)
  • Dr. Carsten Emde (OSADL)
  • Priscilla Haring-Kuipers (Journalist)    
  • Prof. Dr. Stefan Heinemann (FOM)
  • Dr. Paula Palade (Jaguar/Land Rover)
  • Amir Sherman (Edge Impulse)
  • Dirk Stans (Eurocircuits)
  • Johann Wiesböck (ELEKTRONIKPRAXIS)
  • And more

Join us online or in person on November 18, 2021.