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The Thought Leader Interview – James Foster shares his insights on intelligent automation and artificial intelligence as inspiring and empowering technologies

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The Thought Leader Interview – James Foster shares his insights on intelligent automation and artificial intelligence as inspiring and empowering technologies

May 12
20:16 2020


Coming from a family of entrepreneurs and educators, with his father owning an award-winning landscape design business, his grandmother running a marketing firm, and several family members serving as teachers, James Foster has naturally been inclined to creativity, entrepreneurship, and sharing knowledge.

After graduating with a Master’s Degree in Software Engineering from Brandeis University, James went on to work for enterprises undergoing major digital transformation efforts. He has combined many years of experience with insights gained from his love of travel, and now is a proponent of empowering individuals with technology, using the transformative spectrum of RPA, intelligent automation and artificial intelligence.

In this exclusive interview, James Foster talks about his mission of empowerment, the cultural shift in digital transformation, the dimensions of applying AI, and the rewarding aspects of sharing knowledge.

Interviewer: Give us a brief of your background. How did you get into the technical field?

James Foster: I was born and raised 30 minutes outside of Boston in a small Italian family. From the start I was innately curious, always outside exploring new trails or inside processing new ideas. My first introduction to technology was an Atari 2600, and my interest in personal computing was captured with my family’s first computer, an IBM PS/2. This interest grew to a pursuit of an undergraduate degree in Computer Science from WPI and a graduate degree in Software Engineering from Brandeis. I then moved on professionally to teams and projects that were at the forefront of digital transformation, particularly in the retail sector.

Interviewer: How do you see digital transformation happening today?

James Foster: Many people I meet are at first apprehensive about digital transformation because they automatically envision machines taking their jobs away and creating a dystopian society run by robots. Once they get a realistic understanding of the pragmatic capabilities of automation and AI, the two areas that increasingly are being core to digital transformation, they realize that it involves having a digital assistant to which they can delegate their menial, repetitive, data-intensive tasks. The data-entry and number-crunching work they don’t find rewarding. The conversation shifts to assistance and task augmentation, with computing enhancing their capabilities, and about envisioning what new and creative work they can explore while a robot handles the grunt work. This drives a cultural shift as well as a technology shift.

Interviewer: What do you mean, a cultural shift?

James Foster: There’s a long tradition, particularly in large enterprises, of an organizational distinction between “IT” and “the Business” and a culture of IT handling the technology. Today, technology is so ingrained in everything we do that it’s unrealistic and unproductive to turn to IT for technology solutions to every problem.

In psychology, there’s a concept of learned helplessness, which occurs when someone becomes conditioned to accept a situation when they feel it’s out of their control. They become so conditioned that even when an opportunity to control the situation presents itself, they do not take it. They have learned, and believe, they are still helpless. You see this same effect in large corporations where the business increasingly stops pursuing solutions and automatically delegates it to IT. The IT backlog increases exponentially, and digital transformation slows.

The cultural shift occurs when IT transitions from being a giver of technical things to IT fostering the enablement of people. It reconditions people to be more creative, more entrepreneurial, more hands-on with technology to produce more efficient and effective solutions themselves … instead of just accepting the bad situation and waiting for someone else to address it. A culture of empowerment.

Interviewer: You mention the field of psychology. How did that awareness come about?

James Foster: I have always had a mental curiosity and fascination with the inner workings of people. Combining lessons from multiple disciplines has enabled me to grow and apply those teachings in my personal and professional life. I think that awareness and application is an important aspect of self-leadership and leading others.

For many years, I practiced dressage, a form of horsemanship that dates back to classical Greek times and that blossomed in the Renaissance. During those lessons my instructor would constantly issue the guidance of “Less Is More”, highlighting that action comes from clear, precise communication between rider and horse. Another saying we had was “Shut Up And Ride”, a rather blunt message in reducing both verbal chatter and mental chatter when they no longer served their purpose and instead became a barrier to action. Today I apply those lessons in being agile and avoiding analysis-paralysis and death-by-powerpoint.

Another example and one of my favorite symbolisms in my mission of empowerment is the song “Jungle” by Tash Sultana. It’s best experienced by first listening to the song, no visual or video, and focusing on the variety of the instruments. Then look up a video online to see it performed.

I draw many lessons from my travels as well. I have been to 20 countries so far. Resourcefulness I truly learned while hiking the Inca Trail in Peru and interacting with the local Quechua people. Being remote in the Andes, they have found practical uses for everything they come across. Nothing goes to waste. The Inca Trail is a multi-day trek and backpacking in high altitude quickly teaches you a form of minimalism for efficient movement.

Interviewer: What inspired you to start your website inspiringautomation.com?

James Foster: I am blessed to have been raised by very altruistic parents, so I naturally am a giving person. Many of my family members have pursued teaching careers, so the value of education, and in helping others learn, is continuously reinforced. In my travels I have come across incredibly generous people who have freely given their time and knowledge. This website is another platform for my goal in empowering people by sharing my thoughts on applying automation and AI. I find spreading this knowledge inherently rewarding. It is true to my personal nature, my “why” as Simon Sinek would define.

Interviewer: What advice would you give to individuals interested in automation and artificial intelligence?

James Foster: There are two dimensions I would suggest individuals frame their journey in. The first is the how, the mechanics of how to apply the technologies that exist and that are emerging in this field. RPA (Robotic Process Automation) is a good first step, because it requires less of the second dimension and mainly focuses on replicating human tasks exactly. More programmatic forms of automation leveraging system integration is an evolutionary next step by learning about APIs and how systems communicate with each other. Certain forms of AI are becoming more mainstream, such as form processing and image recognition, and can be incorporated into automation solutions using user-friendly interfaces. The more advanced forms of AI require more formal training.

The second dimension is the purpose, the intent, the why. This is about truly understanding the problem, the metrics, and the goal. One of the biggest anti-patterns I see emerging is using AI for the sake of using AI, and assuming a solution with AI is automatically a great improvement. AI has significant potential, but with great power comes great responsibility. An AI trained with biased data, for example, will learn and make biased decisions. By keeping this second dimension continuously in mind, and test solutions for bias, individuals can practice Responsible AI.

Lastly, they can always reach out. I’d love to hear their thoughts and experiences as well.

LinkedIn: https://linkedin.com/in/jfost

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Company Name: Inspiringautomation.com
Contact Person: James Foster
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Country: United States
Website: inspiringautomation.com