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Cathy Bessant, Chief Operations and Technology Officer

By Peter High, published on Forbes
06/19/2017

As the Chief Operations and Technology Officer of $94 billion Bank of America, Cathy Bessant has tremendous influence in the technology ecosystem that surrounds the financial services industry from fintech start-ups with which she partners, from the war for talent with the would be employees of the company to the vendor partners that she engages to the rising influence of artificial intelligence (which she prefers to refer to as “responsible automated intelligence”).

It had been three and a half years since I last caught up with Bessant, and she had mentioned that she had rethought a few things. She used to refer to Bank of America as a fintech firm. She has come to realize that it is not a fintech firm, but that fintech firms are an important part of the ecosystem that the company has built. In fact, she highlights the advantages a company with the scale that Bank of America has relative to the fintech companies who compete with aspects of what Bank of America does. She also used to note that Bank of America would never be involved in public cloud solutions, but she now foresees a day when that will be possible. She explains these changes of heart in great depth herein. She also covers the boards that she has joined in recent years and the value she has derived from them and vice versa among a variety of other topics.

Peter High: Cathy, several years ago, we spoke about your purview over both technology and operations at Bank of America. Since our last conversation, the trend toward the intersection of these two disciplines has become more profound. We see it with a number of executives who have taken on both sets of responsibilities, walking in your footsteps, if you will. We see it even at a more granular, technical level with topics like DevOps, which combines the two. Having owned these areas for such an enormous organization, what new insights do you have regarding the advantage of having them together?

Cathy Bessant: When we combined the areas seven years ago, even our own people thought we were crazy. Today, the intersections are becoming increasingly apparent. Everything we do in operations, from the most manual to the most sophisticated task, is better when it is automated. It is better, cheaper, and safer when it is digital; and it performs better for customers. For a classic operations organization, technology is not just nice to have, it is a requirement. By the same token, technology is nothing if it does not perform. The intersection of the operations team’s contributions to platform stability and to ensuring that there is not only a technological experience, but a human experience, is what today’s customer expects.

High: The rise of artificial intelligence has been profound in recent years. You prefer to refer to it as “responsible automated intelligence,” rather than artificial intelligence. Can you define the term and share the reason for your preference of that specific terminology?

Bessant: I do not like the term artificial because by definition it means fake, so it is partly a linguistic preference. More importantly though, intelligence is created by humans, even if it is run on an automated basis. We can think about artificial intelligence as algorithmic intelligence, as well, because what takes data and produces an outcome are algorithms that are written, overseen, governed, and managed by people. Automated intelligence is often better, more predictable, faster, cheaper, and has a lower error rate – as long as our algorithms work. There is no doubt AI is the term of the day, but we have been using automated intelligence for a lot longer than people think. For instance, we have been using models to create credit scores for 25 years. You can go through a lot of different elements of banking and say, “This is a more sophisticated or more tech enabled deployment of automated or artificial intelligence,” but it is not something we are not used to, which is an important point.

High: You use the word responsible when referring to automated or artificial intelligence. How do you think of the responsibility aspect?

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