Digital Fluency: An Intelligent Approach to A.I.

Jul 25, 2018 10:55 AM ET

By Jim Swanson, Chief Information Officer, Monsanto

Artificial intelligence (A.I.) is not the future. A.I. is the now, delivering real benefits for people and businesses today, in addition to holding extraordinary potential for accelerating innovation and creating even greater efficiencies down the road. At Monsanto, we recognize that the world of agriculture is being transformed by data science, and A.I. is a major part of that.

I recently shared some of Monsanto’s A.I. successes at The Economist Innovation Summit, Building the Intelligent Company, held in Chicago. I had the honor of serving as a panelist at the event and the pleasure of learning from an amazing cross section of peers, researchers, academics, venture capitalists, journalists and other innovators.

I presented a Monsanto case study about how we deployed A.I. to vastly improve our global transportation and logistics function, a project that is on track to deliver annual savings and cost avoidance of nearly $14 million, while simultaneously reducing 300,000 miles and 350 MT of C02. Equally important, it has freed up our transportation planners and analysts to focus on higher value tasks. These themes of cost savings and employee empowerment and enrichment were covered throughout the Innovation Summit.

Just a few years ago, discussions around A.I. and cost might have been focused primarily on the price tag of utilizing A.I. and whether it was worth it. However, because more companies across a myriad of industries are using A.I., the costs to deliver models are decreasing. A problem-solver who wants to employ A.I. for predictive modeling no longer must write the code to create the model or even to accumulate huge volumes of data to begin. Instead, those researchers can use existing platforms, such as Keras or Google TensorFlow, which both accelerates the process and lowers the cost.

In agriculture, for example, there’s so much that A.I. can do. Deep learning algorithms are being developed to support robotics and enable automation, whether for harvesting or picking applications, or for a fully autonomous tractor that would make real-time, in-field decisions. These are tools that can help optimize harvests, reduce costs and eliminate waste.

A.I. is also being used to make sense of satellite or unmanned aerial vehicle images taken by farmers and researchers to track crop health and productivity. In this application, A.I. acts similar to facial recognition software to read the information in these images and root out patterns that might suggest a specific pest or disease is present or that a section of the field needs additional nutrients or irrigation. That can help farmers use pesticides, fertilizer and irrigation water far more efficiently. And it is prompting a sea change in agriculture by enabling much faster, more precise responses with the proper crop inputs.

How A.I. might impact the workforce was another issue widely discussed at the Summit. Earlier I noted that when we instituted the A.I.-driven logistics function at Monsanto, our transportation planners and analysts were “freed up.” That phrase may invoke fear because of concerns that A.I. will take jobs away from people. But I use the term in a much different context. Allowing people to break away from monotonous, repetitive tasks is liberating. By significantly reducing or eliminating the time people spend on rote tasks, A.I. empowers employees to engage in more fulfilling and higher value capabilities like analysis and insight.

Some of the panelists discussed how their companies not only improve employee satisfaction through A.I., but also use it as part of the hiring process. Many use A.I. to analyze candidates’ cognitive and technical skills. But A.I. has advanced to the point that companies now embrace the technology to measure other traits, such as perseverance, empathy, teamwork and curiosity. A.I. models can help recruiters and hiring managers understand if a potential employee has the mix of “soft skills” that will be a good fit for an organization’s culture.

What I have observed at Monsanto is that A.I. is an enabler, not a replacer. This is borne out by the research firm, Gartner, Inc., which reports that by 2020, A.I. will create some 500,000 more jobs than it will eliminate. The real challenge then is in preparing the workforce for this fast-approaching future. I believe that A.I. will require a fundamental shift in our employees’ talents and skillsets. That doesn’t happen overnight or without foresight and planning. Monsanto and other leaders in this space need to take a proactive approach to people management to equip our employees for the expected growth in this area. That is one of the reasons I am so focused on enabling digital fluency across the company.

This month, Monsanto launched a Digital Fluency pilot program, engaging about 40 leaders at the middle management level from across the business – not just IT—in a specialized curriculum. We also provide in-person and online training platforms to our employees through partnerships with Coursera and DataCamp on what it means to be a digital employee. This is indicative of how we approach A.I. at Monsanto. Education. Encouragement. Empowerment. And I can’t stress strongly enough my belief that this is the path for companies that want to intelligently integrate this technology to make their people and their businesses stronger and their customers happier.