How AI-powered automation is giving people superhuman abilities

By lifting the burden of low-value tasks and offering people unprecedented powers to do high-value work, modern automation can make time for brilliance

By | 5 minute read | January 21, 2021

Jerry Cuomo is an IBM Fellow & CTO of Automation at IBM. He is recognized as a prolific contributor to IBM’s software business, producing products and technologies that have profoundly impacted how the industry conducts commerce over the world-wide-web. Jerry holds over 100 US patents in areas including hybrid cloud, blockchain, transaction processing and artificial intelligence. Jerry is currently the host of ‘The Art of Automation‘, a podcast that explores the application of AI and automation in the enterprise.

Q: As a technologist and pioneering inventor in several areas of computing, what excites you today?

A: Using technology to make people’s lives better. Being able to give back to society is important. Technology for the sake of technology gets boring, honestly. When you can actually change someone’s everyday life, at work and at home, that’s what excites me.

Q: What’s an example of a technology that’s making people’s lives better?

A: Automation powered by artificial intelligence is changing our working lives by increasingly freeing people to apply their talent and effort to high-value work. Enterprises still spend billions of hours each year on mundane repetitive work, and AI can remove this burden so their people can focus on things that really matter. We call it making time for brilliance. We can use AI to transform people into superhumans.

Q: How so?

A: Let’s look at healthcare. I have a new podcast, The Art of Automation, and I just interviewed the head of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. We discussed how much time doctors and nurse practitioners spend on clerical tasks instead of critical things like pinpointing diagnoses. Modern AI can not only handle their clerical tasks, it can also greatly improve their diagnostic abilities—by, say, helping to determine if a blurry spot on a scan is cancer or not. That combination is extremely powerful. It literally gives them superhuman abilities.

It’s the same in information technology. IT managers want to spend less time on low-level problems, and to resolve critical situations faster. They also want to predict the impact of a change before it’s made, to prevent downstream problems. AI can help them achieve all of these goals.

So when I talk about becoming superhuman, it’s from this two-step dance of becoming more efficient—by letting AI do the mundane work to free up your people, and then empowering them with AI to gain extraordinary new capabilities.

After 2020, companies know they need to take the first step. The pandemic greatly accelerated the need for efficiency. But stopping there is missing a great opportunity. When you take that second step and give your liberated employees the power of AI to do much higher-value work, you get value from automation that is an order of magnitude greater.

Q: Are some misconceptions causing companies to not take that second step?

A: Yes. On both the IT side and business side, the biggest misconception is that AI-powered automation is only for data scientists. It’s not. Our view is that it’s for everyone. AI makes advanced automation accessible to general business users.

 Q: To implement AI-powered automation, what qualities should a company look for in a partner?

A: IBM brings four strengths that I think are must-haves.

One, we embrace unstructured data. Without advanced AI, automation is typically limited to structured processes and structured data. But companies have a lot of unstructured data that’s noisy and messy. By using AI and technologies like neural network embedding, we can detect patterns to make sense of that unstructured data. IBM has patents in our portfolio specifically for this and we’re masters at mixing structured and unstructured data. This means we can automate many more processes across your enterprise than vendors that lack these advanced capabilities.

Second, we offer a single platform for business and IT automation, whereas much of the market silos these two areas. You need to automate both to be effective. Our platform uses shared Watson Machine Learning and a natural language processing framework, deployed across the enterprise with state-of-the-art hybrid cloud technology. In short, this allows strong collaboration and insight sharing among people and networks to continually improve the automation.

Third, our systems pull data from a uniquely broad and diverse ecosystem, which empowers companies to graduate to intelligent automation that is predictive and can prevent problems. We pull incident records, historic change logs and machine-learning models from sources such as Red Hat, ServiceNow, PagerDuty, GitHub and many others. This changes risk management. You can’t attain this proactive ability without such a diverse data ecosystem.

Finally, we won’t make you change cloud platforms. Many organizations are using five or six different clouds and they don’t want to change. In whole or part, we’ll run our AI and automation technologies wherever our customers have their data, whether it’s on IBM cloud or Google Cloud or Amazon. That’s a major differentiator for IBM.

Q: What kind of results can companies achieve? 

A: We frequently help organizations cut their processing times by 90%. Banco Popular is a good example; they’re using IBM Robotic Process Automation to handle more than 100 manual processes, many of which are complex. Tasks that once took 10 minutes are now completed in 10 seconds. And the bank’s people quickly understood that they didn’t need to become experts in the technology, they just needed to learn the tools.

Q: But such massive gains in efficiency might mean that a company needs fewer employees. Common perception has long associated automation with job losses. Is AI-empowered automation replacing workers?

A: No. That’s another misconception that doesn’t apply to intelligent automation. The two-step process—using AI to free up employees from low-level tasks and retraining them to do much higher-level work—enables companies to retain people while increasing effectiveness and profits. It’s critical to communicate this clearly and openly to employees throughout the automation journey.

IBM keeps the human impact of automation at the core of every strategy. The goal is always to help human workers be more effective and make time for brilliance—because they are the only source of brilliance. By itself, today’s AI can produce good results. But our experience has proven that you only get outstanding results—the kind you need to stand above your competitors—when it’s paired with a human. I don’t think that will change.

Q: Before we close, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your rather unique claim to fame . . .

A: Yes, I came up with using the three dots in text messages to indicate the person you’re communicating with is typing. It was many years ago and I still get hate mail for it.