Understanding the Digital Economy: An Interview with Cathy Bessant

An Interview with Cathy Bessant

Bank of America’s Chief Operations and Technology Officer on the workforce of the future, artificial intelligence and the future of information security.

Cathy Bessant, Chief Operations and Technology Officer, Bank of America

The digital economy is quickly becoming the global economy. Today, it represents nearly 22.5% of the world’s GDP, and will account for 25% of global GDP by 2020. One indication of how fast this branch of technology is moving: By 2021, there may be more digital assistants—inside every gadget we use, from our cars to our coffee cups—than people.

As transformational as information technologies have already been, they’re likely to trigger even greater disruption in years to come. The implications for the global economy, and our daily lives, are enormous. Here, Cathy Bessant, Bank of America Chief Operations and Technology Officer, offers her perspective on some of the major issues—and opportunities—presented by the digital economy.

Preparing the Future Workforce

Q: In the U.S. alone, there are nearly 500,000 open computing jobs, but last year, there were only 43,000 computer science graduates. Is the global workforce prepared for the digital future?

CB: The skills gap is huge, and it spans everything from cybersecurity to artificial intelligence to data science. The global education system just isn’t set up to produce workers with the kinds of skills that are needed—not all of which require a computer science degree. In fact, within three to five years, it’s very possible that the language a recent computer science graduate learned to code in will be obsolete. So, it’s less about the specific programming language you know and more about your analytic capabilities.

Q: So are you saying there is simply too much emphasis placed on learning to code?

CB: I would phrase that question in a slightly different way. There isn’t enough emphasis on critical thinking. Coding as a mindset is incredibly helpful to developing the kinds of skills people will need in the future. It’s a framework for thinking, logic, and statistics. Languages like Python or Java, however, are changing even as we speak. We need flexible thinkers who can keep up with those changes and, more important, apply the right tools to the right problems. I think there will be a wholesale change in our global education systems in the coming decades to reflect that.

Q: According to data from the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, globally the number of male graduates in information, communications and technology (ICT), natural sciences and math dwarfs the number of female graduates. In Europe, only 20 percent of women with ICT degrees choose to stay in the tech industry. What can be done to close the gender divide in tech?

CB: The topic of women in tech has been a critical one for years. Unfortunately, our progress has slowed rather than improved. We have 50 percent fewer women in the STEM disciplines than we did 30 years ago.

The solution certainly requires changes in the workplace, particularly in the way we coach, develop and evaluate people. Bank of America is consistently named one of the best companies for a woman in tech. We have a program that identifies the most talented women and minority employees and links them with an executive sponsor to help further their careers. It’s absolutely critical that the industry continues to invest that kind of effort, particularly in areas such as tech where women are underrepresented.

And to really move the needle, there needs to be a sustained effort at scale to engage young women and girls in STEM well before they’re ready to enter the workforce.

More responsible artificial intelligence

Q: What is responsible artificial intelligence, and why is it important?

CB: AI is only as good as the people who design the algorithms behind it. AI can have the same biases, both intended and unintended, as manual intelligence. After all, we still rely on humans to create and manage it.

The AI in a driverless car, for example, relies on light to make decisions based on what it “sees.” We know that darker colors reflect less light. So, how do we make sure the car isn’t biased in how it recognizes and avoids hitting people wearing darker clothing? Who will decide how that algorithm is written?

That’s what makes transparency so important in developing responsible AI. As companies and industries, we must know the assumptions an algorithm makes, the data it prioritizes, and how it will learn from experience. Yet, there are companies that consider their algorithms to be their intellectual property, and they want to keep them in a black box. That’s a real challenge.

Information security

Q: You stated in an interview earlier this year that Bank of America’s dedicated cybersecurity budget is about $600 million. Why such a large investment?

CB: Data is the real currency of the digital economy. In financial services, analyzing the flood of data available allows us to build products and services that improve people’s lives. Data is also the foundation of our relationships with customers—when people entrust us with their money, they expect us to keep their personal information safe. That’s a responsibility I think about all the time.

When your business is built on data, you have to invest as much as necessary to protect it. Additionally, in financial services we have to marry our concerns about data security with the need to be agile. A safety measure that slows down an equities trade by even a few seconds presents a risk to that business, for example.

That said, in our efforts to improve efficiency and provide our customers with the best experience, we’re inevitably going to look at new ways to continue employing technology securely. For instance, we are beginning to dip our toe into the water of exploring, in a limited way, using public cloud to prepare for the day when it is safe enough to handle our data. But no matter where technology takes us, data protection has to come first, and our investments will reflect that.


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