Babson Magazine

Winter 2019

Don’t Fear the Future

As artificial intelligence grows more sophisticated and widespread, it will bring changes to our workplaces and our lives. That steady march of technology, though, offers opportunity for entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Photo: Pat Piasecki

“There is not cause for mass panic. The fact is that nobody really knows the percentage of jobs that will be automated over what time frame.” – Tom Davenport, the President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management
Photo: Pat Piasecki

Let’s clear up one thing first: Contrary to what you may have seen in the movies, killer robots won’t be running amok anytime soon.

“There is not much evidence that killer robots are coming for us in the foreseeable future,” says Tom Davenport, the President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management.

That’s not to say that the never-ending march of technology, particularly in regard to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, doesn’t pose legitimate concerns about bias, misinformation, and a host of other possible issues. As AI grows more sophisticated, it will become a greater part of our workplaces and our lives.

For now, at least, the changes brought by AI are incremental, says Davenport, who has written two books on the technology, including The AI Advantage: How to Put the Artificial Intelligence Revolution to Work. Davenport tends to believe in Amara’s Law, which says humanity typically overestimates the effect of a new technology in the short run and underestimates the effect in the long run. “So far, the changes with AI are evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” he says. “It’s not something to be scared of.” Instead of fear, what AI represents is opportunity. For workers, AI potentially offers a way to do their jobs better. Furthermore, for entrepreneurs and business leaders, the new technology means new ventures, new ways of thinking, and new possibilities. Davenport encourages all businesses to look into AI. “You don’t want to be left behind,” he says.

AI at Work

Perhaps the biggest concern about AI is the potential loss of jobs from the technology. Just how many jobs could be lost, though, remains unknown. Headline-grabbing reports predicting massive unemployment appear to be overblown, Davenport says. “There is not cause for mass panic. The fact is that nobody really knows the percentage of jobs that will be automated over what time frame.”

Of course, some jobs are at more risk than others. Jobs that require empathy, creativity, or flexibility are harder to replicate than those with repetitive, predictable tasks. Jobs that require direct human contact (nursing, for example) also are safer than those that are predominantly performed digitally (radiology). “You want to make sure you are doing things that aren’t easily replaced by a machine,” Davenport says. “My son is a TV comedy writer. Machines are very bad at comedy writing.”

In many workplaces, however, employees may find their jobs augmented, rather than automated, by AI. Instead of replacing humans, says Davenport, machines could complement them and serve as a colleague of sorts, performing tedious tasks or helping workers make complex decisions.

One company bringing AI to the workplace is Gravyty, a provider of AI-enabled fundraising software. Based in Newton, Massachusetts, Gravyty works with colleges, hospitals, and other nonprofit organizations that are tackling a range of serious societal challenges, such as treating Alzheimer’s disease, curing cancer, and eradicating poverty.

“Our mission is helping their mission,” says Gravyty’s chief technology officer, Rich Palmer MBA’16, who co-founded the company with CEO Adam Martel, a Babson MBA candidate who once worked in the College’s development office. “We take inspiration from all of our clients. They are doing all kinds of beautiful things for the world.”

Gravyty offers clients a variety of AI-powered capabilities. Its software, for instance, can identify and prioritize potential donors in each client’s network.

One organization was able to land a $50 million gift after Gravyty software singled out a new potential donor. “He was in a pool of people they knew about, but no one had previously taken the time to talk to him,” Palmer says.

Gravyty’s software can draft emails to send to donors, and when fundraisers make edits to those emails, the AI is taking note. “The AI system is constantly learning how you talk,” Palmer says. “The more you use the system, the better it gets. The next time an email comes up, it’s a little better.”

Gravyty also can help clients organize their fundraising trips, figure out which potential donors to meet for coffee or take to dinner, and even suggest restaurants where they should dine. That scheduling can save fundraising staff a lot of time.

“Fundraisers already do a lot of this, but it may take them all day to set up a meeting,” Palmer says. In fact, Gravyty case studies have shown that its products enable one fundraiser to do the work of 10. Have a staff of 10, the company claims, and they can now do the work of 100.

That’s welcome news for an industry that is always in need of talent. “There is a lot of turnover,” Palmer says. “Every nonprofit has open jobs now.”

AI in Our Lives

Outside the workplace, AI may influence our lives in myriad other ways in the future, says Davenport. To name just a few possibilities, AI may help analyze the human genome, assist doctors in predicting who might have a heart attack, or increase the mobility of seniors through autonomous vehicles.

Waycare, based in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, Israel, is using AI to create safer, less-clogged roadways. Typically, says co-founder and CEO Noam Maital ’12, accidents and congestion are responded to after the fact. Two cars collide, and that’s when police are called to the scene. Traffic backs up, and that’s when motorists are notified of the delay by phones and news reports. “A big problem is that we are reactive by nature,” Maital says.

Waycare seeks to change that. Utilized by municipalities and departments of transportation, Waycare’s AI platform analyzes all kinds of data—from accident reports to traffic cameras to weather forecasts to navigation apps on driver smartphones—to predict congestion and accidents before they happen. “The data is overwhelming, but it can be turned into actionable insights in real time,” Maital says.

That’s what happened in Las Vegas. Waycare was used to cut vehicle crashes by 17 percent on a stretch of city interstate last year. The company identified when and where crashes were likely to happen, and then government agencies took steps to reduce motorists’ speed. Digital highway signs prompted motorists to slow down, and police cars with flashing lights were stationed in high-risk areas.

For cities dealing with traffic problems, Maital thinks technology offers a better and more cost-effective solution than trying to expand roadways and overhaul infrastructure. “They can’t pave themselves out of the problem fast enough,” he says. “They have to be smarter.”

Waycare and Gravyty illustrate the capability that AI has to improve our day-to-day lives, both in the office and out. They also show AI’s business potential, which is far-reaching. “In my mind, no industry is immune to the transformational potential of AI,” says Gravyty’s Palmer.

Indeed, the technology is moving ever forward. That relentless progress is not something to fear, but it’s also not something to ignore. “There are serious first-mover advantages to adopting AI,” Palmer says. “Now is the time for entrepreneurs of all kinds to put AI to work or they’ll fall behind, and it may be hard to catch up.”