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Beyond Technology: The Influence of AI on the Future of Work

An interview with Cathy Bessant, Chief Operations and Technology Officer, Bank of America

1. In 2018, Bank of America announced it would be the founding donor for The Harvard Council on the Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence. Why was it so important to be a part of this initiative?

Artificial intelligence is not just a technology discussion. It's also a discussion about data and how we use it and protect it. It's a discussion around modeling and algorithms and how we make sure we get the very best of them and capture the growth potential—but also protect against the downside risks. When someone says AI is better than human intelligence, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, it's exactly the opposite—AI is a subset of human intelligence and therefore by definition can be no better than humans. The Council on the Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence will bring together academic, industry and public policy experts to work through the myriad moral, ethical and legal questions concerning AI.

Also, it’s very important that we rebalance the discussion between the sellers of artificial intelligence and the users of artificial intelligence. We're accountable to make great decisions for our customers and clients; and we're responsible for those outcomes. Reframing the discussion from what can be sold to how it should be used is a very important part of this conversation. These are two of the top concerns we’re hoping the council will address.

2. How will artificial intelligence impact the workforce as we know it today?

We have an obligation to our customers, shareholders and stakeholders to be as efficient as possible, and in many ways, using new technologies—whether robotics or AI—isn’t optional.

That said, when applying these technologies, the number of jobs is less likely to change than the tasks each job requires. We don’t have enough data scientists today. We don’t have enough data architects. We don’t have enough modelers. We do have a lot of people that perform manual tasks and one part of responsible AI is ensuring that these workers are properly retrained and re-skilled. The call to action really is ‘How are you going to help me re-skill?’

3. What role should companies play in preparing employees for the coming changes? And what is Bank of America doing specifically to prepare its employees?

I believe that companies should pay attention to the lessons of history and the challenges that arise when people believe that responsibility belongs to someone else. Preparing employees for workforce transformation belongs to all of us. That’s why at Bank of America, we’ve established GT&O University, through which we support employees with career pathways that make sense for the environment that exists today—and that we predict for tomorrow. The curriculum topics currently have about 20 to 30 hours of content each, and include AI and various coding languages. While the courses are optional, we have already seen huge participation rates that demonstrate the appetite our team members have to prepare for workforce transformation. Companies should drive the effort to prepare workers for these changes and opportunities.

4. What are some examples of areas in which AI will create new jobs?

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Many of the conversations about AI paint a distressing picture of job replacement, but they overlook the fact that new jobs requiring human participation will also be created. Some roles will be automated, but those processes will also need people to analyze and oversee them. For example, as we create more AI-driven tools, like our virtual financial assistant Erica, new roles are opening up based on a better understanding of our customers’ needs and how to advise them.

AI also opens up new opportunities in how we manage risk. The power to use data predictively and at scale is a key component of risk management—especially where markets are volatile—and new expertise marrying these two disciplines will become increasingly important.

5. How do you think educators need to change to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow?

The intersection between commerce and education has never been more important, especially as we work through how AI will impact our society. The pace of the deployment of AI is happening much faster than our social, human and legal frameworks can manage. That’s why our role as the founding sponsor with Harvard University on The Council on the Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence is so important. Ultimately, we want to capture the growth potential of AI while minimizing any risks. Engaging with educational systems is a must—to both think differently about the issues and to develop new curriculum that allows today’s students to think critically about the implications of AI.