Amanda Razani: Hello, I’m Amanda Razani with Techstrong.ai and I’m excited to be here today with Megan Smith-Branch. She is the deputy lead of the Responsible AI team for Booz Allen. How are you doing today?
Megan Smith-Branch: I’m great, Amanda. How are you?
Amanda Razani: Doing well, thank you. Can you talk to our audience a little bit about Booz Allen and what are the services that you provide?
Megan Smith-Branch: Yeah, and thank you for having me today. I’m really excited to be here and talk a little bit about Booz Allen and what we’re doing. Just for some context, Booz Allen is a consulting firm and we have expertise in analytics, digital solutions, engineering and cyber. But for today’s conversation, I think the most important thing is that we are the largest single provider of AI services to the federal government.
Amanda Razani: Wow, that’s amazing. So yes, that is a good segue into our topic of the day, which is AI emotional mindset shift. And so can you share a little bit more about what are you seeing as AI is rapidly coming on the scene and advancing and the enterprise is trying to harness this technology? What are you seeing as far as the employee mindset when it comes to this implementation?
Megan Smith-Branch: That’s a great question and something that I think everyone who is part of our audience can start to understand. So in November, when OpenAI launched their ChatGPT-3.5, they really opened up the democratization of AI to everybody. All of a sudden the technology that lives behind AI became accessible to all of us. We were able to put in prompts and play around. And so what that did at the enterprise level is it really brought up the question of if this is so accessible in everyday use, how are we going to implement technologies like this across our workforce?
And on one side you have employees that are really excited about leveraging the capabilities of AI. And on the other hand, you have employees that may be a little hesitant, not sure what that’s going to mean for them, what it’s going to mean for their work and what does it mean for their organization. So that’s really where we are today. Since November of last year, I can’t believe it’s November of this year. We are now a year in. And so enterprise organizations are really trying to figure out how do we do this? And with our biggest client of the federal government, we are helping them to navigate those waters.
Amanda Razani: Can you share a little bit about that and how you’re working with the federal government on these issues?
Megan Smith-Branch: Yeah. Well, I can’t speak specifically about our work. I can talk a little bit about the mindset and that emotional shift that is taking place. So what AI allows us to do is to create efficiencies. And some of the greatest efficiencies that we can see are some of those mundane tasks that we are all, whether we are in an enterprise organization, a small business, or in the federal government, how those mundane tasks can be maybe taken off our plate or at least made a little bit easier. So think about the email that you’re sending every single week or maybe the email that you’re conversing with the same person over and over again. How can we create efficiencies on that? Things like sentiment analysis where we are evaluating large sets of data, typically text-based data and trying to synthesize what the topics are that are relevant to our project. So those types of things have a lot of opportunity to create those efficiencies. And really that’s the power of AI in terms of creating those efficiencies for employees and our everyday use of it.
Amanda Razani: So with those efficiencies though, there’s always of course the flip side, which I want to talk about a little bit, and that is some of the employee concerns or issues are that as AI is taking over a lot of these tasks, they’re going to lose all these critical skills. And then there’s also the concern about safety, bringing AI into the workplace, the safety issue and the bias. So can you speak to this and how do employers and business leaders handle these issues?
Megan Smith-Branch: Yeah, I want to talk first about, I’ll split that apart into two parts. So if we look at the critical skills, so think about the best use of our most valuable resource, which is our employees. And so if we can get a higher level of experience and mind work out of our employees by taking away those tasks that can be operationalized and automated by AI, then what we’re really doing is we’re allowing our workforce to think more creatively and really elevate. So I would ask all people to take a look at rather than thinking about what skillset we’re taking away, what are we able to add? How are we able to elevate something like if you’re writing code or you’re cleaning data. So if you’re able to take away that large chunk of task that can be automated, think about all of the amazing things that you can do with that time, whether it is tackling bigger problems or doing greater research, even contributing to more strategic, whether at the team level or even at the individual level to elevate your work.
So it’s less about scaling back on those skills and thinking about what are the skills that we have the opportunity to add? Because really it’s endless, right? We are not tapping into all of the great skills that our employees have. And then the second part of your question around safety I think is a great one. So when we started this work formally at Booz Allen, it was really trying to convince people that responsible and trustworthy AI was worth talking about. That has taken a big shift. And so now people understand the importance of having responsible AI, but right now it’s about how do we govern it? How do we create guardrails that are going to still foster innovation but keep everybody safe, including our data and our workers and all of the information tied to those people. So by having a strong governance structure and an AI strategy and enabling our customers to do that and guiding them along that path can really create a great environment to foster that innovation.
Amanda Razani: Can you share any use case examples of any companies that you have worked with and that journey, or is that all kind of a secret?
Megan Smith-Branch: The secret sauce as we like to call it, rather than digging into use cases and I can give an example of that specifically. My team knows that I like to work in metaphors a lot. So I think about it as you hop into your car and nobody thinks about brakes as a limitation, right? Stopping at a stoplight, slowing down around a curve. But if we think about the brakes on a car, they really are a safety feature. But what they allow us to do is to go faster when we want to because we understand that we have those safety mechanisms in to slow down.
And that’s really how we want to think about safety and responsibility with AI. So can we, in a generative model, for instance, let’s go back to ChatGPT or a large language model that is similar to ChatGPT. Can we trust the answer that’s coming back to us? What sort of measurements do we have to put in? And that’s where the creativity and the knowledge of our workers become so important because while AI might take us 80, 90% there. It’s that last 10% that we really need that human in the loop to be able to interact and validate. And that use case scenario that I just shared.
Amanda Razani: Let’s speak about that. The human element, which I hear as I speak to business leaders, the human element is still very important. However, there are quite a few different particular jobs or tasks as we become more efficient by implementing AI where these employees feel that they’re going to lose their jobs. So can you speak to that and the concern that AI is going to take some jobs, is it going to take some jobs, and how do you see the future looking if and when it does?
Megan Smith-Branch: Yeah, I don’t think any of us can answer with any certainty what the future of jobs is going to look like with AI. I know there’s a lot of great research out there that is mapping skills to efficiencies that are currently exist in AI. What we want to look at is how can we better enable people to work with AI? Going back to that last scenario of that last 10%, what is it that we need to build up and how can we skill up our workforce even on the foundations of AI so that they understand the benefits of it and how they might be able to integrate it into their work. That’s really going to shift things. We always like to say, it’s not AI that’s going to take over your job, it’s the person that has the same skills as you that understands how AI can work with your job. That might take over that role for you. So really just building up that skillset and education and training on what AI is, especially as it aligns to your business processes and your organizational mission.
Amanda Razani: So in your opinion then, would it be a good idea for employers to try and educate their employees and offer programs and classes or training courses to prepare them for the future?
Megan Smith-Branch: Absolutely. And that is an opinion that is not just mine, but is something that is shared widely. We’ve seen that come down from the executive order. We see it in our own organization at Booz Allen. We took the initiative, we have a great program called AI Aware. It’s foundational understanding of what AI is, but it goes beyond and it takes that foundations of AI and applies it to how we can utilize it in our business and for our customers. And that’s really the key to any training is not only building out the foundation but making it relevant to the business that you’re in and the work that people are doing. So I would 100% encourage organizations to start looking into how can we train and educate our employees with AI so that they can embrace it and we can really benefit and innovate with it.
Amanda Razani: Absolutely. So if there is one key point you would like our audience to take away from this today, can you share that?
Megan Smith-Branch: Yeah. This is one of my favorite questions and my answer is always, there’s a lot out there that can make us really wary of AI. But I would ask people to sort of flip that narrative and think, how can I improve what I do, if there were some efficiencies that were created with AI? How can I approach it and what do I need to know? And really take that level of curiosity and start to learn in however way that you like, whether it’s through a podcast like this or whether it’s through reading, taking a training, really expand that curiosity about AI and how it’s relevant to you because it’s everywhere.
Amanda Razani: It sure is. And I think as rapidly as this technology is advancing, it’s just going to spread to all industries and all sectors in one way or another. So we all need to prepare and train on this technology and embrace this technology because it really can make a huge positive impact.
Megan Smith-Branch: I couldn’t agree with you more and thanks for having me on to talk about this important topic.
Amanda Razani: All right, thank you so much. I appreciate you coming on to share your insights.