May 8, 2017

Deloitte CTO Bill Briggs is bullish on human workers

The promise of artificial intelligence and machine learning has kept management consultants like Deloitte Chief Technology Officer Bill Briggs busy as companies race to try to make their operations more efficient with these powerful new technologies. Axios sat down with Briggs to learn how we can expect our workplaces to change as a result.

How work will change: The accelerating pace of technological change has forced businesses to adopt tools like artificial intelligence faster than ever before. "If your value is exercising a rote, prescribed job, and that's all you care to do, hopefully you're 60, and approaching a time you can gracefully tap out because not many jobs are going to look the same in a few years," he says.

What technologies are the companies you advise implementing to the best effect?

Many manufacturers are using augmented and virtual reality as well as machine learning. For example we work with an aerospace company doing wire harness assembly that has more than 100,000 steps. It used to be done by workers referencing paper-based, bounded collection of directions. A first step was using augmented reality — giving workers hands-free goggles with screens that light up as they are working on the wire harness to guide them in a way that improves accuracy and efficiency.

Now we're seeing that company also apply machine learning on top of augmented reality, which is helping it learn from past behavior and actually make those 100,000 steps more efficient, and personalizes that analysis for each individual worker.

In finance, we're seeing widespread use of machine learning and artificial intelligence to help manage financial contracts, and the healthcare sector is using these tools to help more quickly and accurately diagnose diseases and other ailments.

What's one major change that's coming to most workplaces over the next five years?

Machine learning will be a part of everything you do, though you may or may not know that you are interacting with it. Sometimes its explicit, for example, customer service operations are increasingly using artificial intelligence and machine learning to create bots that mimic human interaction, but a lot of it will happen behind the scenes. Someone doing underwriting at a credit card company or claims processing at an insurance company already relies on computer programs that have been enhanced with these technologies, but may not realize it.

Economy wide, there has actually been a dearth of productivity growth, as measured by output per worker, outside of the manufacturing sector. With all these new technologies being implemented, why has productivity not risen?

It's partly how we measure productivity. If the only way I can measure productivity is by lowering headcount or increasing output, we may be missing something. At least in the clients Deloitte is helping, there have been massive improvements in the value that companies are delivering to their customers in terms of better and more efficient service that doesn't necessarily show up in the numbers.

If you were advising a college student just preparing to enter the workforce, what one or two pieces of advice would you give?

Cultivate curiosity and develop the habit of continuous learning. Technology changes too quickly to ever think you're done learning.

Should we be worried about robots taking our jobs?

Jobs will continue to change as they always have. It's about being bullish on the future of humanity in the workforce versus trying to protect the sanctity of individual jobs. That doesn't mean that you don't enter this new world with eyes wide open. Companies, not just for reasons of reputational risk, should be considering the morality and ethics of their business decisions.

I like that the need for transparency and visibility in the algorithms and the underlying constructs of how machines are learning and how automation is being delivered is being talked about. We should continue to push for that to be at least visible if not widely understood.

Managers need to also communicate with their people about their commitment to the workforce over the long term, and provide ways for their workers to continuously learn.

What coming technology excites you the most?

Blockchain is one that's looming, and we can't quite see the potential reach because it's still being formed. It's possible that it will affect the management of every asset, physical and digital. It's real and happening, but it's like the beginning of the web was separate intranets. Financial service institutions are using blockchain within their own organizations, but there are actual pilots for using it in medical records, customer loyalty programs, and supply chain verification, to name a few.

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