The recent 2017 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. was full of talk about “digital transformation,” driven by everything from artificial intelligence (AI) to blockchain to the Internet of Things. Among the insights, for me, were the current limits and future potential of AI, and how much a real (rather than hyped up) story of digital transformation stood out.

Are the Robots Coming for Your Job?

Some reports predict that artificial intelligence (software programs that can teach themselves how to do complex tasks) will take as many as half the jobs humans now do in the next decade. For those of us not made of silicon and algorithms, Tom Davenport, President’s Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College, had some comfort from his survey of 160 such projects. He found no evidence of job loss, although there was some reduction in outsourcing.

The bad news, he said, is that smart machines are not yet delivering increased productivity, and that doing so may require the layoffs the experts are predicting. Nor is machine learning yet delivering other dramatic breakthroughs optimists had hoped for. He cited the MD Anderson Cancer Center, which spent $52 million in an attempt to use IBM’s Watson AI system to diagnose, treat and cure cancer. Not a single patient has yet been treated with the technology, he said, and the project is “pretty much on hold.”

However, the use of AI for more basic and labor intensive tasks, such as helping patients schedule visits and determining which patients are unlikely to pay their bills and thus need prodding, are delivering “huge and rapid” return on investment, he said.

He is still predicting big, and impressive, long-term results from AI, with an “amazing” breadth of projects underway spanning functions from legal to human resources to auditing. He also was careful to say his predictions about the limited impact of AI could change dramatically with the rapid, ongoing increase in machine intelligence (one of the programs he studied taught itself Italian.) When the “singularity” arrives (the point at which machines become more capable than humans), he said “all bets are off.”

Marketing/PR tips: Stay informed about AI developments and aggressive in understanding how they affect your industry, no matter how “low tech” it seems. Don’t underestimate AI and how quickly it is developing. One sweet spot for thought leadership (on which I’m working with one client) is how to ensure smart machines act ethically and don’t harm humans. With luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk warning of the dangers to the future of the human race this has obvious headline value.

Real Digital Transformation, at Last

The meaningless (to me, at least) “digital transformation” buzzword was all over the symposium, although not one speaker took the time to define it. Naturally, this meant discussion of how to achieve it was all over the map, and some of the examples were, shall we say, less than compelling.

The most convincing story at the conference came from Tetra Pak Group, a leader in the not seemingly digital nor transformative business of supplying milk and juice cartons and the machinery to fill and seal them. (Yes, they make those little juice cartons with the plastic straws that litter the back of every parent’s car.)

As CIO Mark Meyer described it, this 60-year old family-owned firm has dominated its space for years. Expansion came from entering new geographies, which it did with a classic razors and razor blade strategy: Sell the packaging equipment at a low margin to make higher margins selling the packaging material the machines need.

With increasing competitive pressures, the packing firm is increasing the amount of monitoring data it gets from its machines in the field, so it can sell services such as preventive maintenance and information about best production practices to reduce waste. Eventually, he hinted, it might get into the business of running its customers’ packaging equipment, “selling” a certain number of packed cartons guaranteed to meet their freshness, sterility and cost needs rather than just equipment and packing materials.

This is similar to the much-touted GE strategy of moving from selling jet engines to selling “time on wing”  – a jet engine on an airplane guaranteed to meet specific levels of reliability, thrust and fuel consumption, enabled by GE’s wealth of data about engine performance. The appeal of the Tetra Pak story is that it is an attempt to “transform” an even more old-style manufacturing company through the smart use of data, and in a fundamental and permanent way.

PR/marketing tips: if you’re touting a “transformation” story make sure the change your client is aiming for is 1) fundamental and 2) permanent. The more common and every day the product or service (i.e., milk cartons) the more dramatic the story. Be ready to capture reader attention by explaining the change in business models very clearly, and then sell to the tech reader with details such as the types of data required, the sensors that gather it, the networks that transmit it, the data models used to organize it and the AI capabilities required to analyze it.

Author: Bob Scheier
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I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.