BookIt Q&A: When ‘AI’ Rules the World... What To Do When Machines Do Everything

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The rise of artificial intelligence is the great story of our time. Artificial intelligence has left the laboratory (and the movie lot) and is in your building. It’s in your home. It’s in your office. It’s pervading all the institutions that drive our global economy. From Alexa to Nest to Siri to Uber to Waze, we are surrounded by smart machines running on incredibly powerful and self-learning software platforms. And this is just the beginning. More and more, machines are doing more and more of the work we perform today. Those who succeed in the next phase of the digital economy are not those who can crate the new machines, but those who figure out what to do with them. That’s why co-authors Malcolm Frank, Executive Vice President of Cognizant Strategy, Paul Roehrig, Vice President of Cognizant Digital Business and Ben Pring, Vice President and Director of the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work, essentially write the field guide for navigating this brave, new world.  The three joined forces to write the fascinating and thought-provoking “Code Halos” in 2014 and they’re back at it again with the ultra-timely and white-knuckle “What To Do When Machines Do Everything: How to Get Ahead in a World of AI, Algorithms, Bots and Big Data.”  Then they sat down with Consulting Magazine to talk about it. 

Consulting: First off, this is a fascinating and timely book. Congratulations. So, why this book and why now?

Frank: Thanks for that. And it really is a natural extension of Code Halos—one sort of led right into the other. Code Halos was about the digital transformation and the customer touch. How did Amazon manage to recommend the perfect book or how does Netflix understand your movie tastes better than your spouse. It was about your digital twin and interacting with that digital twin and that’s where the market was at the time, but the more the three of us spent time with clients while running the Center for the Future of Work, it became clear that there was something at the center. Once you go digital, it’s going to end up leading you to the same place and that same place was artificial intelligence. And AI is the new machine. In Code Halos, we started looking at Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Google and about three years ago all their CEOs started saying the same things—at their core they are all artificial intelligence companies and AI is their future. So, we started to look deeper and deeper. Today, we talk about the digital era but in five or ten years were going to recognize this era as when AI took off. Once we started looking at it closely, we discovered there probably wasn’t going to be a job, a company structure or industry structure that wasn’t going to be impacted by it. So, this is a universal story; and that’s the genesis of the book.

Roehrig: The three of us have been the leaders of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work so we’ve been looking at this stuff and talking to clients about the future well before Code Halos. The release of that book certainly helped shape the conversations we’re having with clients and the kind of research we’re conducting. So, the three of us were connecting often in the field and connecting with clients, it became clear to the three of us that there was a bigger story here that we felt we had to tell. Clients were asking about it and the three of us were constantly having remarkable and fascinating discussions about it on a regular basis. In that ongoing creative exchange we were having we became more and more convinced there was a bigger story here that wasn’t being told. In our meetings with clients we’d sense a certain zeitgeist of concern or even fear about the future. Often, we’d talk about business and technology and then—in a quiet moment after the session—someone would come up and ask us questions like “what’s going to happen?” or “what should my children be studying in school?” These concerns were much bigger than we originally thought and we believed that these things were not disconnected… thus the book.

Consulting: Would you say there’s more excitement or fear out there on the part of your clients?

Roehrig: Both, but we thought we had a distinctive point of view on what’s happening and what could happen and provide that counter narrative to that “we’re all doomed to oiling and maintaining the terminators” is not true. If you’re clever, you’re smart and you don’t short human imagination and you make smart decisions about the future of work and technology and systems of intelligence and AI, things can actually be great. The more we looked the more convinced we became it was a story that had to be told.

Consulting: You do a great job of allaying some of the common fears and misconceptions in the book, but still, it’s sort of scary stuff…

Pring: We certainly tried to strike a balance. This is very real; this isn’t science fiction. We wanted people to know that. This is happening and in same ways it’s actually even more mundane than people probably imagine. It’s not going to be the Terminator, but rather it’s going to be Siri and Siri’s children and step-children. We think this is the great story of our time but then we also thought it was important to provide a playbook for both individuals and for corporations.  We stayed away from the big political and socio-economic debate, but I think you can read between the lines and extrapolate what’s coming there by some of what we laid out. We weren’t really trying to be optimistic, but rather pragmatic. This is happening; this is a reality. Some people will undoubtedly sit around and debate all the implications of the next 20 years, but we think the better thing to do is to focus on the next 20 months. What do you need to do? This book provides an actionable and pragmatic approach with steps you can take to come out on the upside, the right side, of this transformation.

Consulting:  What should companies be doing? What practical steps should people be taking to come out on the right side? 

Frank: Where people get afraid is they look at existing work and it’s true, a lot of that will be automated away. But what they fail to recognize is how much invention is going to occur with AI. In ten years, there are predictions that say bio-technology will be a bigger sector than Information Technology. In addition, virtual reality and augmented reality will be larger than the entire TV and movie industry in the next ten years. Then, imagine what will happen when AI hits healthcare. It’s going to completely transform what we all would agree is a broken system right now. But where we saw people getting stuck was when they put the machine into the context of what work is today. Our big ‘a-ha’ moment came when we came up with five discrete approaches for success. I’ll just focus on one—robotic process automation (RPA). The clients we work with have all received the memo. It’s wherever people are pushing paper in manually-driven processes; people are realizing that they have 100 people that could be automated down to five. Not only is it dramatically cheaper, but it’s machine learning based, continuously getting smarter, never takes a coffee break, never complains etc. It’s surprising how many process areas there are where RPA will start to have a huge impact over the next five years. A real-world example of this is Uber. That manual process of calling a dispatch and then dispatch would find a cab and get it to you. That got automated and you saw how quickly that got scaled. There are pain points, for sure.

Consulting: You mentioned this is a playbook; what would you characterize as the main takeaway from the book for the reader? 

Frank: You don’t have to just sit back and be victimized by this. If I’m running a law firm, if I’m running an insurance company, if I’m running a hospital… what do I do and how do I not only survive this but thrive and, ultimately, have a much more profitable business.

Roehrig:  I think Malcolm said it perfectly: This doesn’t have to be something that happens to you. You have the authority and the power to act… and it can be great. I mean the automation pill is going to be a tough one to swallow but there is a pragmatic path forward between the utopian and the dystopian path that has been painted almost every day for us.

Pring: There’s a famous Oxford study that says 43 percent of jobs are at risk from the new machines over the next decade or so. That’s the big, scary number that has been out there and we took it on head on. With all due respect to Oxford, we’ve come out in a very different place. We think that’s very broad and very high level and based on all sorts of assumptions that start to crumble when you look more closely at them. We do say automation will reduce some jobs but that’s always happened. But the real story is most jobs will be impacted by the next-level of productivity tool, which is what AI is. You can choose to worry about this very big macro-picture of things going away, but the reality is you as a doctor, you as a journalist, you as a management consultant will have the opportunity to use this next generation tool to make your job better, more productive, more effective, more enjoyable—that’s the real story. If people stare too long at the darkness of the future, they are going to miss the real opportunity that’s available to us all know. That’s the message that we’re trying to drive into the marketplace as a counter weight to all of the doom and gloom that’s out there. We think over the next ten years, the nature of jobs and the nature of work will shift significantly, but overall, from a macro level job loss will be equaled out by job creation to be fairly neutral.

Consulting: I would imagine it’ll take a very different skillset. How will workers need to adjust in terms of skills and capabilities?  

Pring:  Well, you’ll constantly need to be upgrading your skills and evolving. From a skill perspective, you won’t be able to learn one skill in college and then grind out a career for 45 years, of course. You’ll have to continue to master the next generation of automation tools and continue to be a value add to an organization, not something or someone who can be automated away. But that’s been the story of business for a long time. We’ve always adjusted to new automation, it’s just that this one is more powerful so the pace of that evolution will accelerate.

Consulting: How do you see the book playing a role in Cognizant’s relationship with its clients? How is it impacting the type of work the firm is doing? 

Frank: I think it’s a one-two punch: In one sense, we wrote this book for the 100-year old company. The conventional wisdom is they are in trouble here, but they’re not in trouble. They have a real home court advantage in a lot of ways. For one, they know their industries cold; they know their customers and they know the regulations etc. Secondly, they have all the data. Cognizant’s role is two-fold: We know these legacy systems and all of that data cold. And the second thing is from a strategic standpoint, where we consult with clients and advise them on what they should be doing strategically. What was maybe elective two years ago is now mandatory. If I’m a banker and suddenly the bank across the street is changing the rules of the game, I better have that in six months or I’m toast. That’s where the consulting opportunities are really heating up, helping clients understanding how they get from Point A to Point B.

Roehrig:  What Malcolm said is exactly right. The consulting element of this can’t really be overstated; it’s that vital. And the reason we’re confident in that is because the questions we’re getting from our clients cross a broad spectrum of everything we talk about in the book. For instance, I’m the CEO of an insurance company in the Netherlands, what does this mean for our specific business models and how do we apply these technologies and connect the existing and potential data from new machines with a new business model? That is how digital change happens and that is a consulting led change. The consultants are driving the change. After strategy and business then it gets very tactical. How do I automate? What processes do I use? How do I think about software engineering to avoid being ‘Ubered’? We have massive amounts of enterprise software that were built for an industrial economy, but now we have early winners like an Uber or a Netflix. They’ve changed the expectations of what software and engagement should be. It’s faster; it’s more data intensive, it’s always on, it’s interactive; it’s connected to intelligent products. The strategy and tactics for doing all of that is where we are entering into potentially an era of great growth and excitement around consulting because that is the engine for linking the concepts we talk about in the book into actual strategies and steps that will drive growth in the digital economy.

Consulting: Consulting has always been searching for that next big wave. Is this it? Is this the next big wave of consulting?

Roehrig:  Absolutely. The answer is unequivocally yes! Consulting has always been about providing meaningful guidance to clients. It’s increasingly valuable in eras of great disruption. Consultants have probably one of the most exciting opportunities to be able to help imagine and develop the digital economy. That’s where companies like Cognizant bring a lot of capability together. But that’s a consultative interaction. The future is already here but it’s unevenly distributed. It’s up to consulting teams to be able to solve questions and create plans around what to do when machines are doing more and more of everything. It’s changing everything: It’s changing models; it’s changing consumer expectations; it’s changing how value is created. It could be a fantastic opportunity for smart, switched-on consultants.

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