Contemplating the AI Revolution

Paul Roehrig, co-founder and managing director of Cognizant‘s Center for the Future of Work has an academic air about him. He makes some thoughtful reading recommendations as he sits across the table from me in the rear of the large, echoing expo space at Las Vegas’s Venetian-Palazzo. 

He also makes some dramatic statements: “This is nothing less than the largest business opportunity — or challenge — since the industrial revolution,” for example. And: “To be digital, you have to be more human.”

We were talking about AI — Roehrig is co-author (with Malcolm Frank and Ben Pring, also of Cognizant) of the new book What to Do When Machines Do Everything) — and especially AI in the context of the customer experience. Experience, after all, was the dominant theme surrounding us at Adobe Summit 2017.

“Adobe,” Roehrig agrees, “is clearly expanding beyond the parameters of marketing and advertising.” Experience connects the many and multiplying customer touch points into a narrative, a journey, Roehrig explains, “and every touch point is technology-impacted.”  The revolution, already underway, is the infusion of AI and machine learning into that impact.

Roehrig says he’s been looking at AI for the last three years, and he’s learnt that “everyone has an opinion about AI, and they’re always willing to share it.” One aspect of the machine revolution the book addresses is anxiety about automation. There’s a concern that many jobs will be automated into extinction. “But,” Roehrig points out, “jobs are broken down into tasks,” and there are many tasks for which machines are better suited. “AI is simply the productivity improvement of our time,” he says, drawing an analogy to Henry Ford, whose legacy was not automobiles, but an end-to-end process (right down to cultivating rubber trees) which enormously boosted productivity. 

He acknowledges that some uncomfortable changes may be coming for some people, but denies that machines are taking over — Ray Kurzweil’s dystopian vision. Humans will continue to make decisions, and although it may be counter-intuitive, the effect of the AI revolution will be to put people back at the center of things; it’s not about building tech for tech’s sake. At this point, he recommends Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, which posits a growing role for creativity within the economy.

AI and data are keystones of the revolution. But there are other elements; for example, mobile. Roehrig brandishes a smartphone. “These things have trained us. They’ve changed our expectations.” We now expect the same kind of personalized service, customer experience, and immediacy from banks and insurance companies as from retail. 

And then there’s the Internet of Things. One example he offers: connecting the IoT to the mortgage-loan process. Co-ownership of a home with a mortgage company should lead to “an ongoing dialog about a joint asset. What erodes home value?” IoT censors, linked to AI, can monitor for degradation, trigger repairs, run security systems.

In the last two years, Roehrig plausibly claims, AI has gone from interesting concept to a C-suite or boardroom agenda item “in every major firm we work with. It’s a profound, dramatic, remarkable shift.” 

Adobe covered DMN’s expenses to attend Summit.

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