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Rise of the machines

This article was originally published in the 2017 Summer Edition of AQ.

Everyone is talking about digitisation, but it's been a longer process than many of us realise. Beena Ammanath discusses AI, big data, cyborgs and rotary telephones together with AQ.

AQ: How would you define digitisation and do you feel that the term is misunderstood or misused?
BA: I've been in this space for over two decades and you get the illusion that digitisation is something new, but really it isn't. It has been around since computers were invented - digitisation is simply any information that can be digitised. Digitisation has been happening for decades now - the way that I define digitisation is to be able to put information in a digital format and derive value from it for your business - it can be in a marketing context, an industrial context, it can be your sales records, it can be digitisation of your financials or it can be digitisation of your design engineering drawings. It's just in the past few years that companies are getting additional value through digitisation; it's not just about optimising tasks or being able to share information more freely (which is what we saw a decade ago), but actually generating additional revenue streams through digitisation.

AQ: What has been the biggest impact on companies of digitisation over the last 5 years?

BA: I think it's the culmination of a number of advances that we've seen in technology, whether it be cheap storage, computer processing, machine learning or artificial intelligence. You are now able to build digital products on top of your traditional products. Look at Amazon and what they've done with digitisation - they were selling physical books, but now they're also selling digital books (and other goods); they're commercialising their own cloud services. The boundaries between digital products and physical products have disappeared and driven a whole new business model - now businesses are able to expand into areas that we couldn't have imagined 30 to 40 years ago.

AQ: So, you think that the difference between traditional and digital business no longer exists - there's just business which has digital aspects?
BA: Exactly! I'm a bit amused when I read about a company's 'digital strategy' - there's no such thing as a separate digital strategy, there's just a strategy for your business which has digital aspects. Digital should be ingrained in every company's DNA. Another aspect is that companies that started out as 'pure digital' companies are now also expanding into traditional areas, whether it be Amazon or Google. Google was a search company, a 'pure digital' company - now it's branching out into autonomous cars, so there's no longer the separation between the digital business and the non-digital business.

AQ: What specific challenges does the era of digital transformation present from a leadership/management perspective? Has it changed the way that we need to be leaders?
BA: Absolutely. I think it's a new way of doing business, so the management style also has to change. Most companies think that digital transformation is a technology problem, but it's also a cultural change problem. If you're trying to drive the adoption of digital technology within a traditional industry, then that requires a company culture which is open to change. Your digital tools and processes will be effective only if your people adopt them, so leaders have to be aware of how important it is to be able to focus on the cultural aspects and not focus on getting the latest tech. How do you make sure that your workforce is ready to embrace the digitisation that you put in place? If you look at the newer employees, the millennials, who haven't worked in factories - they're used to using the newer digital tools on a daily basis, so they don't need the training. Yet there is inherent knowledge in the older workforce - how do we capture that, package it and make it available for a newer workforce which is more digitally savvy, but doesn't have the expertise?

AQ: That's going to a question of retraining and accepting that there is a change in the kind of jobs available?

BA: We know that the jobs are going to change. There's going to be so much automation that a lot of jobs are going to go away, but a lot of new kinds of jobs are going to be created. We have to rethink our whole education system. I grew up in a system where I learnt maths, history and science - a lot of it was memorising, but that's not how my kids are learning. They're going to grow up in a world where they do not have to memorise anything. It's going to be more about how we learn; the future generations, the generations beyond the millennials, will be about continuous learning, will truly be about creativity, will truly be about tapping into the human side of things. We have already become cyborgs - our phones are our digital extensions, we are already attached to a machine!
I am old enough to remember a time of rotary phones and also a time when you had to send a telegram to reach somebody urgently. All that has changed and it's all happening in our lifetime. What is it that we should be teaching our employees today so that they have the skills relevant for tomorrow? That, for me, is a very interesting challenge, a challenge upon which we as leaders will really have to focus.

AQ: What do you imagine will be the biggest changes (due to digitisation) over the next 5 years?
BA: Artificial intelligence (AI) is going to have an impact upon every job. AI will be as pervasive as the internet and mobile technologies. AI's influence is not going to be restricted to tech roles alone - it is going to change how nurses, pilots, physical therapists, small business owners, investment bankers and farmers all do their jobs. It might have a significant impact or a small impact depending on the actual role, but there will be a change in how work is done.
In the future, for AI itself to advance, we will need unique domain expertise. For example, only a lawyer can tell which part of their job can be truly automated and, more importantly, what checks and balances need to be put in place to prevent rogue AI. This is necessary for AI's own good.

AQ: What other areas do you feel are going to be real game changers in terms of the market?
BA: In terms of an industry, I would say healthcare - big data and machine learning can revolutionise healthcare. It's a heavily regulated industry (rightfully so) and quality care is unusually expensive.
I'm hopeful that there can be a transformation driven by the new digital technological advances - how we do insurance, how drugs are administered, how we collaborate between doctors and patients. Even today patient notes are not in a format that can be easily shared in a standardised way. Imagine if all the healthcare equipment in the world, from MRI machines to X-ray machines to doctors' notes - if everything was connected. If, as soon as you went in for an MRI scan, the machine could identify all the scans with a similar pattern to yours and say 'here is what was done and here was what worked'.
There is so much opportunity to actually help people; this will have a huge impact.

Beena Ammanath
Beena Ammanath empowers companies to envision their future and ensure continued relevance in a digital world. Her blend of corporate leadership and depth in new technology gives her unique perspective on what it takes to craft and successfully guide executive teams through transformational change. For over 24 years, Beena has engaged with leaders to scale and diversify their businesses through internal innovation and acquisition/divestitures. She is a thought leader in artificial intelligence, IoT, big data, analytics and digital transformation with expertise in how to innovate with these technologies while mitigating the associated risks.

Beena is currently Global VP - Data, Artificial Intelligence and New Tech Incubation with Hewlett Packard Enterprise. She was recently inducted into the 'Women In Technology' hall of fame and is widely recognised as one of the most influential thinkers in computer science.

She holds an Advanced Master's Degree in Computer Science and has professional experience spanning several domains, with companies as diverse as Thomson Reuters, Merrill Lynch, British Telecom and start-ups.

She is a passionate advocate of diversity and as such is a board member of 'ChickTech', a non-profit organisation dedicated to retaining and encouraging female talent in the technology industry. She is also the driving force behind 'Humans For AI', a non-profit exploring the implications of Artificial Intelligence on the workforce of the future (humansforai.com)

Posted on March 28, 2018 12:58 PM |