The Role of AI in a Pandemic, the Launch of Responsible AI, and What’s Ahead – Futurum Tech Webcast Interview Series

In this episode of Futurum Tech Webcast — Interview Series, host Shelly Kramer is joined by Rob Walker, the VP of decisioning and analytics at Pega aka “the AI guy,” to discuss the role AI is playing in the pandemic, and the scoop on something new from Pega called Responsible AI. We also explored how empathy and ethics come into play and, of course, how organizations can benefit from leveraging AI moving forward beyond these “Corona Times.” This conversation is intended as a preview to Pega’s upcoming Pegaworld iNspire virtual event being held on June 2, 2020, from 9 to 11:30am EDT. This high impact, low time commitment, interactive virtual event is free, sure to be packed with great information, and also available on demand for all registrants — you’ll find a registration link at the bottom of these show notes.

In our conversation, Rob and I explored the topic of companies who are leveraging AI in pandemic times and how they are benefitting. That’s because the AI is learning from each interaction it has with customers — and right now companies are having a lot of interaction with their customers — and that speeds up the “learning curve” for AI within the enterprise. That’s incredibly beneficial, both to the organizations using the technology as well as to the customers who are benefitting from quick responses and solutions to their problems or concerns.

Speeding up interactions and adding in empathy. Rob shared thoughts on how organizations are using technology that allows AI to help determine the next best action, and factoring empathy related to the hardships many customers are now facing. This works really well in times of crisis and it’s not something that everyone understands that AI can help you do really well, and do at scale, which is not always easy.

How taking the long-term view can be a profitable one. Rob and I discussed how taking a long-term view of your customer relationships, factoring in empathy to your interactions, can ultimately be more profitable for the company. We discussed how this is especially important, especially for banks and financial institutions today, with competition from the FinTech industry where lots of startups are vying for customer attention.

Use Case Examples. We also discussed some interesting use case stories and Rob shared some examples of how some of Pega’s customers are using AI to help next best action capabilities and are actually walking the walk when it comes to a customer-centric approach.

Introducing Responsible AI. Lastly, Rob and I covered Responsible AI, a new feature that Pega is excited about rolling out that is essentially an ethical bias check that Pega built in beyond the data science level to help businesses practice responsible AI in their engagement strategies. One of the coolest things about this part of the conversation was that this Responsible AI functionality is evaluating instances and often creating and finding opportunities that might have gone undiscovered, if not for the technology driving this. More on this for sure at the upcoming Pegaworld iNspire event. You can also check out the press release on the Responsible AI launch from Pega here.

You can watch my interview with Rob here:

Or grab the audio version here:

As I said during our interview, as a data geek, Rob’s presentations at the Pegaworld events are always my favorite, and I enjoy hearing about innovative things Pega is doing as it relates to AI and other functionality built into the Pega platform. The information he shared here did not disappoint, and I look forward even more to the upcoming event so that I can get a deeper dive from Rob and team at Pega.

This is your reminder to make it a point to register for Pega’s upcoming Pegaworld iNspire virtual event being held on June 2, 2020, from 9 to 11:30am EDT. This high impact, low time commitment, interactive virtual event is free, sure to be packed with great information, and also available on demand for all registrants. Be sure and note that even if you can’t attend the virtual event in person on June 2nd, if you’ll register, you’ll be able to access the entire event on demand. Register for Pegaworld iNsprire here and I’ll “see” you there.

Please also check out my other interviews with Pega SMES, including:

The Pandemic is a Catalyst a Lot of Businesses Needed — It’s Time for a Massive Rethink (Don Schuerman, Pega CTO)

How Banks Are Capitalizing on Pandemic-Fueled Digital Transformation to Serve Customers (Marc Andrews, VP of Financial Services and Insurance)

How Businesses are Adapting Customer Service Strategies in Times of Disruption (Jeff Nicholson, global head of CRM)

This podcast is part of a special series focused around what leaders and companies are doing to help employees and customers deal with COVID-19. Be sure to subscribe so that you don’t miss out on amazing insights.

Disclaimer: The Futurum Tech Podcast is for information and entertainment purposes only. Over the course of this podcast, we may talk about companies that are publicly traded and we may even reference that fact and their equity share price, but please do not take anything that we say as a recommendation about what you should do with your investment dollars. We are not investment advisors and we do not ask that you treat us as such.

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Shelly Kramer: Hello, and welcome to this special episode of the Futurum Tech webcast interview series. Today, I’m excited to bring you one of my favorite guests. He doesn’t know that he’s one of my favorite guests, but today I’m talking with Rob Walker who’s the VP of Decisioning and Analytics at Pega. I call him the AI guy.

And before we get started with this conversation, I want to mention that our intent here is to give you kind of a small preview of what you’ll see at the upcoming PegaWorld iNspire virtual event, that’s being held on June 2nd from 9:00 AM to 11:30 AM EDT. And I will include a registration link in the show notes. But I have attended this event in person over the course of the last four or five years. I always learn a lot.

The team at Pega is amazing. And so I highly recommend you get that on your calendar.

So with that aside, Rob, I’ve seen you present at PegaWorld over the course of the last few years. I’m an AI and data geek so your presentation is normally one of my favorites. Today, one of the things that I want to explore with you is the role of AI in the pandemic. And I want to get some of your thoughts on responsible AI and what that looks like and how empathy and ethics come into play all my most exciting things. So with that in mind, hi, Rob. Welcome. It’s great to have you.

Rob Walker: Yeah, thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m looking forward.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. What, so you didn’t know I was kind of a fan girl. So talk with me about responsible AI.

Rob Walker: Yeah, I think that’s a topic and yeah, you’ve heard me talk about it obviously, but it’s very dear to my heart. I’ve been into AI for a very long time. I’m not even going to admit on camera how long that is, but for quite a bit. And I think now with the proliferation of AI, right? And we are using this in like… It’s driving billions of interactions with consumers and customers.

So you have to be really careful with how AI is evolving, that the algorithms don’t go rogue on you. All those horror stories, everybody’s worried about it. Things like bias. So responsible AI is making sure that we avoid all of those things and use it for all the stuff it’s really good at.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. And I think that just as to my way of thinking, just as we develop with a security-first mindset when it comes to technology of any kind, I think we also lead with a responsible-first mindset when it comes to AI. And I think that’s a really great foundation I think upon which to build. Let’s talk a little bit about the role that AI can play. Obviously we’re navigating a pandemic the world over, what role can AI play in the pandemic for helping to improve customer experience?

Rob Walker: Yeah. And this ties right into responsible AI, right? So later we can maybe about what makes up responsible AI. But I think one of the things that is really important is that AI and that’s the role I feel it’s playing right now, it’s first of all, it’s taking away a lot of, sort of the pressure on staff, right? A lot of people are working from home, call centers are struggling, so digital channels become much more important and digital channels are increasingly powered by AI. So I think that’s a very big role, but it also goes to the responsibility because things can go horribly wrong, very fast, obviously with some flavors of AI.

But I think in this pandemic, what we’re learning is that because the AI is learning from the interaction it has, right, that the company has with its customers, that a lot of it, it’s adapting automatically. So it’s not like where in a pandemic you shouldn’t go through the normal motions maybe of spamming people with particular offers. You want to be much more relevant, much more empathetic. And I think AI can help drive that and it’s driving that very effectively.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. That’s very cool. So you mentioned empathy. I’m a comms major so studying empathy is right up my alley. And so you mentioned a little bit about… We touched on empathy for just a second, but I also think that empathy plays a huge role here. And there are ways that technology powered by AI can help your customer service teams be more relevant in their interactions. And I know that I’ve seen your dashboards at prior events. You kind of have an empathy meter and empathy setting.

And I remember when I first heard about that, I was so excited because that really allows companies to sort of adjust the meter a little bit in terms of their interactions. Tell me a little bit about that.

Rob Walker: Yeah. Now we think that’s really cool. And it’s also because of the perception of AI and I’m sure we don’t share that, but you hear it a lot that AI may be very clinical and cold and making very rule-like decisions. That’s not what AI needs to be, right? And some of the things I was talking about is if this AI, like in many of the cases we do, when it’s sort of determining the next best action for a particular customer, then it’s all about what next and best is, right?

So the best action should really take into account lots of empathetic considerations. Relevance is a big one, right? It’s very weird. Like if you were asking me a question and I start talking about baseball, there’s just a mismatch, right? And that relevance is just very normal to humans, but it’s not what a lot of companies do.

So that’s part of empathy, but it’s also in many cases trying to put yourself in the place of the customer, right? Do an analysis of what you think the customer actually needs. So if the customer is navigating the website and is struggling, try to figure out what’s the intent, right? Be relevant. Or if you’re selling a financial product, like maybe a mortgage or a loan, can you make that even if the customer is eligible and even if it’s relevant, so the customer is interested, have you checked whether it’s suitable as well? Are you selling into a customer that you actually already know will not be able to pay the bill or what’s for instance, a big customer of ours is a large bank in Australia, CommBank, the largest bank in Australia. They really built into this whole next best action, the whole concept of hardship, right?

So when they had these horrible forest fires, for instance, they don’t have to do anything, right? Their whole conversation engine based on AI immediately knows, “This is Shelly. She works or she lives close to where we have these issues. This is really not the right time to sell to her. This is the right time to tell her that we have her back and don’t worry about those kinds of things right now.” That’s empathetic stuff that I think plays really well into a crisis, but it’s also something that people, not everyone understands AI can actually do really well and do at scale.

Shelly Kramer: Well, and the really cool thing about when exploring this conversation, as I know from seeing this and talking with you all about this in the past, I mean, you can actually look at an empathy setting that for instance, this bank customer in Australia uses, you can map cost savings, you can map increased revenues, you can map dollars, whether it’s savings or incremental sales, not necessarily in the banking example that we used, but so it’s like, “You don’t need to take our word for it. We can show you really how turning up…” And I always thought it was fascinating to think about conversations that you have with your leadership team, “So what do we want our empathy setting to be?”

And in some instances we want it to be a little cold and in another instances we want it to be more lukewarm and then another… In the case of a disaster, we want it to be much warmer. And so it really is interesting to me that you can kind of modify this level of AI and use technology to kind of help guide your response.

But again, you don’t have to. I mean, to me, I’m a data person, right? So show me the numbers, show me how it really makes an impact. And you can show the numbers, which I think is part of what makes this so exciting to me.

Rob Walker: You bring up a really interesting point, right? So if on the premise that you have this, and this is what that Australian bank has, but a lot of our customers do, but they have this centralized brain in the organization that is looking at every single interaction they make. Tens or hundreds of millions a day, it’s a lot.

Measuring that, now you can see, “Hey, this is an interaction where we didn’t do the right thing, where we really try to push a particular offer very much against the relevance. We knew the customer was like 0.5% likely to be interested, but we wanted to do it anyway.” And you can sort of look at your opportunity of all of those kinds of things. And then the analysis, as you pointed out shows very clearly that if you are having a little bit of a more long-term view, of sort of your customer relationship and don’t want to maximize it all in a moment, in the end, that’s a lot more profitable.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. And I think that… I had a conversation with your colleague Jack Nicholson earlier, and it really is in times, and we all, organizations are interested in efficiency and productivity and profitability, that’s a given. But in times like what we’re navigating now, that’s so much more important than ever before. Those are the differences between businesses surviving and businesses thriving.

And so really understanding how to use technology in efficient ways. To use technology in ways that really drive significant… helps drive digital transformation and helps really deliver significant results, I think that that is more important than ever before. I know that you shared one story, my very favorite thing, whether I’m at PegaWorld or any other event that I’m covering for someone, I love use case stories. I love to be able to hear interesting ways that people are using technology. I realize you may not be able to share client names, that’s fine, but is there anything else that you can share with us about how some of Pega’s clients are using AI right now to help with the customer experience?

Rob Walker: Yes, absolutely. So I mentioned the Australian bank, let me move across the ocean, a couple of oceans maybe, like to the UK, large bank in the UK are also something, they actually call it personology. So they’re really trying to become customer-centric. And the thing is, it’s not lip service they’re paying, everybody wants to be customer-centric. It’s all about the customer, but really it isn’t. Because you have the mortgage people trying to sell more mortgages, you have the loan people trying to sell more loans, and then there is other stuff service, how do you really prioritize that?

So I think what’s really cool example in general of sort of the scale at which you can do this, is if you, as this bank has done, is say, “Every single interaction we make in any channel, whether that’s an outbound channel like a notification on your phone or a letter or email or it’s the inbound channel, any of these channels, we’re going to figure out at a scale of tens of millions of interactions a day, every single customer, specifically, what is the next best action.”

And that’s the way we actually have a conversation, right? I’m listening, I’m listening to your context, I’m trying to figure out your intent, and then I’m trying to make an empathetic… I can dial it up or down, but I’m trying to make an empathetic decision on what to talk to you next. And then you are talking to me, you’re saying yes or no, or, “Well that’s too expensive,” or whatever it is, that changes the context and I’m doing that again.

And I love these use cases because it first of all translate into a lot of value, but it is mutual value, right? It is the customer really having much more intimate, personal relationships with in this case, their bank, right? And it’s obviously the bank profiting from a relationship with much longer tenure and with a sort of forward focus.

Shelly Kramer: And I think too, from a customer standpoint, customers don’t really… This is a sweeping generalization, but I’m going to make it anyway. Customers aren’t necessarily looking to change relationships. You know what I’m saying? Like if I have a relationship with a bank or an insurance company or healthcare, whatever, the easiest path for me is getting all of my needs taken care of by that provider.


So sometimes I don’t know the different offerings. Sometimes it’s just not even on my radar screen. And so using this example, just kind of being agile, using AI to sort of help drive those further conversations, I think that that solves a problem for a customer as much as it does for an organization, because I want my stuff handled. I want it to be quick. I want it to be easy. I want it to be cost effective. So yeah.

Rob Walker: But the irony is obviously, you have like, the grass is greener kind of thing going on. Like where customers may say, “Well, this is not awesome, this experience, maybe it’s better somewhere else.” But the irony is that these companies, they have all your data, right? They should know all about this. If they use AI responsibly and do it in the right way, they could meet a lot more needs in their meetings.

Shelly Kramer: It totally makes sense. And there’s so many ways… I know that you probably have retail customers that are using this as part of their operations, is that right?

Rob Walker: Well, we’re focusing honestly, a little bit more on financial services, communications, large… Yeah. Those kinds of companies.

Shelly Kramer: Okay. That makes sense. So I know there’s something new from the Pega platform as it relates to, and this is where we promised we’d circle back, as it relates to responsible AI. And I think there’s a new feature that I’d love for you to tell us a little bit about.

Rob Walker: Yeah. It all falls into that category of responsible AI, right? We really feel quietly, honestly as an obligation as a fender in this space, but also just from taking responsibility ourselves of the technology that we deploy that DAI is responsible. And one of the things is that AI needs to be fair, right? There is a fairness component. The other things we talked about relevance and empathy, but it also needs to be fair. And that means it shouldn’t have bias.

And I will add to that, that humans have a lot of bias too, right? So AI has held to a high standard, but in the case of AI, you can measure it. Right? So what we are introducing is sort of an ethical bias check, which is maybe to better understand it, means that if you have these tens of millions of interactions with customers, how do you make sure that not just your predictive model, like the data science, they may have checked for a bias in their model, like maybe, you’re only selling credit cards to men, right? Or avoid all people in Kansas City for some reason.

And you may not even know that’s there, especially when the algorithm’s getting more and more complex. It’s not like it’s very easy to see. Right? So all of these things you can test in an automated meter and that’s this ethical bias test that we built in beyond the data science level. So the whole customer strategy that they have in place that is interacting with customers tens of billions, a hundred million times a day in any channel, is automatically tested and see, “No, you’re good. You’re not favoring gender or race or things like that.” And you can set tolerance levels and then yeah, it’s automatically checked. So we’re very excited to make that sort of thing that used to be very much of a data sciency thing, and to make that very operational.

Shelly Kramer: Oh, I think that’s very exciting. I remember when… This is the kind of thing that sometimes we don’t think about on the front end, but on the back end, it’s like, “Holy moly, why didn’t we think about that?” And example of that is, remember when the Apple card came out and the Apple credit card that was in partnership with JP Morgan, I think?

But the Apple card came out and I remember some press around that at the time about bias in the application process and bias in the approval and that a husband and wife with the same income, same set of circumstances, he was approved for a higher level of credit than she was. And it’s like that’s not the kind of press that you want. So that really is why it’s so important to think about this stuff, all of this kind of stuff on the front end rather than a headline in the wall Street Journal on the back end. We don’t want that.

So such a great conversation. I want to wrap this up, Rob. I want you to tempt us with the most exciting preview, a tidbit of information or something tantalizing that we can expect to see and to hear from you and the team at Pega at the PegaWorld iNspire event. No pressure, but make it good.

Rob Walker: Yes. Well, okay. One of the things, so we talked about sort of the ethical bias check, but that’s sort of a boundary condition, right? Otherwise, you should really have your AIB responsible and things like that. But sort of on the profit side of the house, another thing that we will be talking about is something like finding opportunities to create value. So, that’s sort of the opposite. So you’re basically interrogating the AI and saying, “Hey, listen, with all of these interactions that we have, is there a pocket of customers that were really not serving well? That are either dropping out of a channel or we have just nothing relevant to offer them.” Because with all the rules that we have and the margins and risk profiles, they are just not being served, right? “So can you find for me and describe those kinds of people?” So we have an opportunity to reach out to them proactively or when they come in, in a much more weather.

So that’s sort of putting it upside down, right? So you have the AI doing all of these things, and now we’re asking, “Hey, should we maybe make like,” we have a credit card, but maybe this particular credit card is not something that appeals to a particular group of people. So we’re reversing and creating and finding opportunities. And we’ll be talking about that as well.

Shelly Kramer: Oh, I think that’s really exciting. I think that-

Rob Walker: I think as a data geek, yes.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah, absolutely. Find me more customer opportunities. Well, Rob, thanks so much for hanging out with me today. It’s been a true pleasure. I’m sorry. I won’t get to see you in person this year. This is going to have to… I’ll be hanging out on June 2nd and participating in the event. And so I’ll remind our viewers that the PegaWorld iNspire virtual event is going to be June 2nd. Starts at 9:00 AM in the morning, runs till 1130 that’s Eastern Time.

I will include a link to register in the show notes. If that date doesn’t work for you, if that time doesn’t work for you, it does not matter. But what you do need to do is register because then you’ll be able to have access to the information shared in the sessions and that sort of thing on demand. So I hope to see you there on June 2nd. And Rob, thank you again for hanging out with me. It’s always a pleasure.

Rob Walker: Okay. Thank you very much.

Author Information

Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”


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