Showing by telling: How this IBM engagement leader helps people see the future with Watson
By Caitlin Leddy | 5 minute read | May 30, 2018
To Rachel Liddell, telling stories is far more than entertainment. It’s one of the most powerful tools we have to spur change and inspire action in the world. Rachel majored in literary studies at Middlebury College, exploring literature across cultures, geographies, and time. She learned how creative storytelling can shape our understanding of the world, deepen the role we take within it, and impact our behavior in ways that can drive amazing change.
Now, in a storytelling plot twist, Rachel works for one of the largest technology companies in the world – IBM – applying her passion for literature, and expertise with words, to help articulate the story of our AI future. Based at IBM’s Watson Experience Center in New York City’s Astor Place, Rachel helps business leaders and influencers understand how Watson will change their organizations, their communities – and their lives – by telling stories about the real impact and exciting possibilities of AI.
We talk with Rachel about how she helps people see – and prepare for – the future with AI.
Did you ever see yourself working for a technology company?
Technology was one of the few subjects not on my radar while at Middlebury. I was buried in literature, studying topics like political science, sociology and physics – but technology? It wasn’t even an area of interest, or one I thought my skillset was aligned to. Looking back, I see how literature and technology have so much in common. They both require a considerable amount of creativity, collaboration and communication. Technology is both a vehicle for language, but also a language itself – and it is rapidly redefining the world as we know it today. How, when, where and what we communicate is influenced heavily by the growing repertoire of technology at our disposal.
How I wound up at IBM is a classic story itself. Throughout college I loved exploring new topics and meeting people, which is part of what drove me to take on a role in admissions where I would build relationships with prospective students and give tours to inform them about the college. Through that role, I met my now mentor. He worked for IBM and opened my eyes to the possibilities of starting my career in technology. AI has the potential to improve nearly everything we do – from how we process information, engage with one another, and how we apply creativity. That includes communication and storytelling. Looking back, I don’t see my academic experience in literature and my career choice in tech as disconnected, but instead closely aligned. I’ll always be a literary nerd at heart, so the opportunity to be on the front lines of a technology that will influence so much about our future – including how and what we tell stories about – is hugely exciting and rewarding.
How do you help people understand AI, especially when they’re critical about the technology?
To adopt IBM Watson into your world – whether that’s putting it to work in a complex process like supply chain or something geared toward a consumer interaction, like a chat bot – you have to see and believe in its impact. I do that by showing what Watson is capable of, what it has already empowered people to accomplish, and what the possibilities of our future hold.
It can be difficult to articulate how a technology as complicated and all-encompassing as AI will have an impact on one person. This is why storytelling is so important. It’s my job to understand what matters to everyone I meet with – what makes them, as a character, tick – and then show them how Watson can help them be the hero in their own story, achieving great things together. That can be presenting the ways in which Watson makes sharing knowledge across an organization better and smarter, or showing how Watson analyzes tone to inform more intelligent marketing campaigns. But regardless of what the story is about, it must connect on a personal level. That’s when I see the “aha” moment. The moment people realize how AI will make them better at their job, make their information more actionable – that’s when skeptics turn into optimists.
It’s important to note that I don’t shy away from the tough questions. One of the most exciting parts about working in the field of AI today is just how many unknowns there are. It’s still early days for this technology. IBM is developing it responsibly and carefully, but there is much we all still must learn and discover. When I meet with someone who is skeptical, or worse, afraid, I remind them that this is an exciting frontier that they not only have an opportunity – but a responsibility – to help shape.
When did Watson – and the opportunity for AI – first inspire you?
One of the first times I truly understood the power of AI was, once again, when it became personal. Both of my parents are doctors. They’ve dedicated their careers to health and medicine, working long hours during the day and continuing to work at home in the evening – working to provide the best possible care for their patients. So, when my mother told me she struggled with her dictation software, I had my own “aha” moment –better access to information can have an enormous impact. With AI, patient insights aren’t just easier to find – they jump right off the page. Watson can analyze thousands of medical articles and studies, while nearly simultaneously comparing that data to a patient’s historic records. Things that physicians, even my parents, despite their brilliance, can’t do effectively at scale – but AI can do it for them, freeing them to deliver better care to more patients.
That’s why I’m so excited about Watson and humbled to be part of the team building the future of AI at IBM. For me, it’s not so much about what the technology is – but what is does. IBM is transforming the world by helping people be better at what they do. Whether that’s as simple as turning my mother’s notes into immediate, actionable insight or redefining how doctors access data to inform better, potentially life-saving treatments, the opportunity AI presents is to make us better at everything we do.
Looking ahead, five to ten years, where do you see AI having the greatest impact?
Very soon, AI will become omnipresent throughout our personal and professional lives. It will help people, like my mother, become even better at their jobs by turning the data that surrounds us into insights we can leverage to do amazing things. At home, it will help us experience life, understand the world – and yes, tell stories – across cultures, geographies and barriers in a way we’re just starting to see a glimpse of now.
This future will be powered by businesses that empower their employees. Which is why today we should all be looking forward – five, ten, even twenty years from now – and thinking about what our role can be in that future. I never thought my artistic and literary background would be applicable at a company like IBM. But what I realize now, and what I encourage everyone to consider, is how important creativity and communication will be to our future. Connecting the dots with this life-changing technology requires humans to work together, think outside of the box and be consistently curious. Ask questions, ponder the impossible – and always be learning.
Interested in seeing how you can be part of the IBM team? Check out current openings, or learn about our entry-level and internship opportunities. You can connect with Rachel on LinkedIn – and discover more about IBM Watson at ibm.com/watson.