In the legend, John Henry beat the machine, but died in the process. (Image courtesy Shutterstock)

Business is combining software with people to make productivity and customer satisfaction rise.

Humans have been struggling against machines since they were invented. American folk hero John Henry trying valiantly to dig faster than a steam drill really is not that different from the story of cabdrivers striking against Uber. What all of us need to realize, however, is that the winning play in a digital economy is not fighting against robots and artificial intelligence, but using our new tools to improve productivity. In our book, What To Do When Machines Do Everything, we call it “enhancement.”
Quietly, but at a steady pace, white-collar knowledge work is being improved, accelerated, and enhanced by the new machines. In some cases, the examples are so familiar that we don’t even recognize them. It can be as simple as starting to type “Where is a…” in a search in Google and having the bot instantly offer up alternatives including Aruba, Amsterdam, or Area 51. (Google can explain.) That may enable minor convenience—or perhaps not, if you are actually looking for “Where is an off switch for Slack messages?” But clear business value is starting to emerge when we apply AI to work that matters.
The financial industry is seeing it. Startups like Betterment, as well as venerable financial institutions like Charles Schwab and Vanguard, are linking humans with bots to provide better services to wealth management clients. Palantir and Credit Suisse formed a joint venture to monitor trading activity and identify patterns that might indicate unlawful trading. It connects data, software, and trained analysts stop policy breaches and protect the bank’s assets and brand.
In spite of the shrill warnings of the doomsday prophets, the bots will not be taking over anytime soon. But what we need to do is enhance knowledge work with systems of intelligence.
The good news is that such systems are appearing all over. And in many cases, they are not causing wholesale job disruption, but rather make us more effective and productive. In banking, education (with McGraw-Hill Education’s ALEKS system), insurance (LexisNexis Risk Solutions), medicine (The da Vinci Surgical System—see article on page 38), transportation (anything from Tesla), fashion (see story about Stitch Fix on facing page), and virtually every other industry, white-collar knowledge work is being enhanced by our new machines.
“Technology should augment the human intellect, not replace it,” says John Giannandrea, who runs Google’s AI efforts. “It should be a powerful tool to help us think better, and I think that is really the journey we are on,” he says.
The best chess player is not Garry Kasparov or Deep Blue; it’s Garry plus this year’s model of AI. Augmented masters routinely beat machines alone. The best radiology results come from a trained radiologist plus AI. The practice of law is improved by smart lawyers plus robots that can do routine, often tedious, data analysis, and discovery.
Trying to win in the digital economy with industrial era tools is like churning your own butter. It may be fun—and get you hipster points—but it’s bad business.
A carpenter, doctor, musician, executive, or claims adjuster is only as good as her tools. If you want to stay relevant for the next 10 years, recognize that the tools of your trade are changing faster than any time in your life. Open your mind to the reality that technology is significantly extending productivity and profitability in ways that even a few years ago would have seemed far-fetched and implausible. Ten times more? One-tenth the cost? Why not?
Paul Roehrig is co-founder and chief strategy officer of Cognizant Digital Business. He is also co-authorwith Malcolm Frank and Ben Pringof What To Do When Machines Do Everything: How to Get Ahead in a World of AI, Algorithms, Bots, and Big Data, on which this essay is based.