Renata Jungo Bruenger from Switzerland is responsible for Mercedes-Benz Law, Sustainability and Ethics. The board of directors gave the group strict guidelines for the use of artificial intelligence. But is this slowing down innovation?
Renata Jungo-Brunger sits in her office in Stuttgart and dreams of the Alps. She talks about the Savian Valley, where she owns a home and enjoys the tranquility of Graubünden on her days off and the clear starry sky at night. “For me, this is the most wonderful luxury,” says Mercedes-Benz Group AG’s Legal Director. But there is hardly any time for that these days.
Because the 60-year-old from canton Fribourg is considered “the most powerful Swiss woman in the world economy” – as the tabloid Blake describes it. And the world economy is currently suffering from massive crises: the Ukraine war, the shortage of raw materials and energy, the downturn of the global economy, the prospect of a quick end to energy imports from Russia (which Mercedes, incidentally, advises against) – Brüngger’s employer Jungu and all the German employers are doing all that auto industry that difficult to create.
Your tasks can still be crucial to the future of the Swabian car manufacturer. The board member must ensure that the group reconciles progress with responsibility. How much future is allowed – for example when it comes to applying technologies like artificial intelligence?
“Many ethical questions are related to the use of AI and autonomous driving,” says Jungo Brüngger, who wears a gray jacket and color-patterned silk scarf to the interview via zoom. After a short talk about the magic of their homeland, we come straight to the challenges of the future: Like the competition, Mercedes-Benz sees itself as an innovator and wants to do much more than just manufacture and sell vehicles. They want to shape the mobility of the future, for example through the electrification of the entire fleet (which should happen by 2030). The group will invest around 60 billion euros in research and development over the next four years – and will develop new intelligent systems that may soon replace the human behind the wheel. Jungo Brüngger made the ethical debate about artificial intelligence in navigation its topic early on. As early as 2016, I discussed the classic scenario in ethics committees: A self-driving car can’t take evasive actions and must decide: Do you risk a fatal accident with an elderly person or a young person?
“It can’t be tied to one situation, it’s much more complicated,” says Jungo Brüngger. Most likely, this situation will never arise in practice. “Our systems don’t decide for or against anyone, but rather focus on braking at the right time,” says the lawyer. But she also admits: “Many of these ethical questions are not definitively resolved.”
Because the question He points to the gist of the matter with AI: Once intelligent machines treat people as objects, things get complicated. So data protection advocates demand: Algorithms that make decisions in favor of people should never ignore fundamental rights and freedoms. This seems reasonable, but it is not easy to implement in practice, for example when chatbots assess creditworthiness or determine whether a person’s behavior, such as insults, makes them liable to prosecution.
Therefore, controlled learning is the top priority at Mercedes-Benz. Jungo Brüngger says, “When we use an intelligent system, we have to ask ourselves: When should we learn and when not?” In a concrete sense, this means that the self-learning algorithm is off as long as the car is rolling. In other words, the AI in the car is chained and not allowed to do what it might actually be able to do. but why? The manager answers: “For legal and ethical reasons, we do not use algorithms that change the car’s behavior while the car is operating through learning.” “If we had cars with different intelligence, this could become a safety issue.” Depending on how you drive, the system adopts different habits – the leading foot can train the car’s AI to be reckless, while the unsafe driver trains the machine to frequency maneuvers. So AI should not absolve humans of any responsibility – at least not yet. “Our approach is for people to remain the pioneers of technical progress,” says Jungo Brüngger.
Germany is one of the few countries that have imposed legal restrictions on AI applications, particularly with regard to data protection. The EU Commission wants to follow suit and put in place binding regulations. But even in Brussels, as in Stuttgart, you have to weigh things: how narrow are the borders? When do you stifle innovation or make it turn away from you?
“One of the problems is that there are no uniform legal guidelines at the international level,” says Jungo Brüngger. “Not enough is happening here.” So companies are committed. “We want to be innovative and at the same time develop technologies that are legally safe and have a high level of acceptability. For this to work, engineers, lawyers, ethicists and even future scientists will have to work closely together from the start,” says Youngo Brugger. Slowly but surely – the German motto also applies here. Mercedes even gave itself a set of rules relating to artificial intelligence three years ago under the stewardship of the Swiss.
AI is often demonized, especially in the field of mobility. On the other hand, the technology required for autonomous driving has not yet met expectations. Last December, Mercedes’ intelligent autopilot was the first to be approved in Germany (since then, autonomous driving has been made possible in Level 3, where drivers can get away from a traffic situation under certain conditions; this year, the system has also been approved them by US authorities) – but in everyday life this mostly sounds like science fiction. In the spring, a German court ordered the American manufacturer Tesla to reimburse the customer for the purchase price of the Model 3. Autopilot did not work optimally, it was like a “drunk novice driver”, for example because traffic lights and stop signs were not recognized. The case caused ridicule, but it probably won’t shake faith in technology. Johan Jungwirth, former head of digital Volkswagen, believes that in 20 years, it will seem strange for people to drive themselves.
Autonomous driving is technically too complex to implement.
Renata Jungo Brugger says:
but united now market. Development is very expensive because autonomous driving requires the most complex type of artificial intelligence. Tech giants like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are investing in autonomous mobility, but traditional car manufacturers have long been active as big players. Experts warn: Only those who show staying power and have the resources will stay in business.
So when will trucks, taxis or self-driving cars become a part of everyday life? Jungo Brüngger is cautious when making predictions: the Swiss say the fact that everyone drives completely independently at all times is “technically very complex”. Artificial intelligence, at least behind the wheel, is no smarter than humans. “People do a lot of things intuitively when they drive – we hear, see and then react accordingly. It’s still very difficult to reproduce using sensors and artificial intelligence. For example, when the sirens go off on a highway, a human knows what to do – The machine is (still) soaked.
Jungo Brüngger joined the Mercedes board of directors in 2016. She describes August 2020 as the most difficult week in the business so far: At the time, the company reached an agreement over an emissions scandal after long negotiations with US authorities. The automaker paid more than $1.5 billion in the settlement and came down relatively light — Volkswagen had to pay four times that amount.
‘Frankness, respect and empathy’: This is her moral compass, says the attorney. Whatever you handle, it does 100%. As a teenager, she played the Beethoven sonata almost perfectly, but today she rarely touches the keys. “There’s never enough time to practice and I don’t like messing around, especially when it comes to me,” says Jungo Brüngger. That’s how high the demands she places on herself – maybe not just in music.
In addition to trips to Graubünden, Jungo Brüngger also loves to venture out on mountain climbing trips – but there’s no time for that at the moment. In 2015, she and her husband invaded Cerro Toco, a 5,604-meter dormant volcano in Chile. At the time, she was still the head of the legal department and even in the Atacama Desert, she called the team once a day. But she can also be separated from her adopted home in Stuttgart; Instead of staring at the stars, relax here in the evening with Netflix. Her favorite series is the somewhat shallow historical drama Bridgeton – it doesn’t always have to be about tough questions ahead.
Renata Jungo Brugger
… he studied law at the University of Friborg. She came to what was then Daimler AG in 2011 – today she is a member of the Mercedes-Benz Group AG Integrity and Legal Affairs Board.
Text: Reinhard Keck
Photos: Annette Cardinale for Mercedes-Benz AG
This article appeared in our Issue 3-22 on Amnesty International.