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A much-needed reality check on AI at Constellation Connected Enterprise 2017

Once again, Constellation Research’s annual Connected Enterprise conference proved to be an excellent event with its uniquely fast-paced format focused on the latest technology and business trends.

Speakers at the event included headliners like Richie Etwaru (Chief Digital Officer, QuintilesIMS), Constellation analysts like R “Ray” Wang (Principal Analyst and Founder, Constellation), and industry leaders like Andrea Chin (Executive Director, The Estée Lauder Companies), Anne Kao (Director, Digital Health, Blue Shield of California), and Charlie Isaacs (CTO for Customer Connection, Salesforce).

I’ve sifted through the firehose of information to present to you my top takeaways below.

The dawn of blockchain

We kicked off with the hype-laden topic of blockchain but those expecting an update on cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin were in for a shock. Richie Etwaru forced us to think far more broadly about blockchain as a foundation technology with the potential to drive a trust revolution. With the Bitcoin blinders removed, you can see a powerful vision of future commerce founded on trusted smart contracts where businesses compete on fairness and transparency.

How we get to this vision from the world today was the big unanswered question—my bet is on a new family of platforms—but I for one would not argue against the claim made that we are “at the dawn of the Cambrian explosion of blockchain.”

AI stands for “augmented insights”

No surprise that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) came up repeatedly through the conference, but there was a refreshing dose of reality in every discussion. This was best realized during a rapid-fire round where the question “Is AI real?” drew the following response: “Yes, but AI means augmented insights.”

This seemed spot on, and it clarified my recent experiences working with Einstein AI within our own applications. Unlike the completely autonomous systems of science fiction, AI tools today provide assistance so that real people can improve efficiency and accuracy. FinancialForce, for example, employs AI to help businesses spot performance trends and identify outliers at the macro level but also to provide early warning on poor outcomes at the transaction level, such as projects predicted to go over budget or invoices tracking for late payment.

Tricia Wang (CEO, Sudden Compass) built upon this theme by stressing the importance of the human element in decision-making. Bad things will happen if business decisions are made by AI alone. Not all data can be quantified. Without meeting customers, hearing their stories, and understanding their motivations and drivers, you could miss something important happening that data analysis didn’t detect. Tricia’s advice was clear: combine AI with human insight to come up with the best decisions.

AI can make us happier

The importance of the human element came up again during the event’s gala dinner, where I represented FinancialForce customer and Supernova Awards finalist Traction on Demand.

Earlier that day we had discussed the cultural requirements for succeeding in digital transformation, which largely involved putting people in environments where they can thrive. This was a great lead-in to the Traction on Demand success story, where sentiment tracking and Einstein analytics helps schedule employees on the projects most likely to make them happy.

Overall, Constellation hosted another great, insightful event, bringing together a range of talented people from all sorts of industries. Congratulations to Ray Wang and his team for putting together three days of thought-provoking content. I look forward to the next one and will look out for the job titles of the future we heard about. I’m certainly interested in the position of Chief Unknown Officer as suggested by Tricia Wang however I suspect it’s now too late for me to retrain as a Robot Psychotherapist.

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