Kumar Rathnam, Dun & Bradstreet: “Before AI replaces jobs, it will enhance current jobs”

If there’s anyone you need to talk to about the changing world of work, it’s someone who explores exactly that subject as part of that day job. Kumar Rathnam is that man. He leads the Digital Advisory Services team at Dun & Bradstreet (D&B), a company that itself leads the way for delivering insights to business.

Over an extensive career, Kumar has worked across almost every industry you can think of. Most recently, that includes data, digital media and marketing — all at the sharp edge of technological progress. And he has the academic credentials, too, with an MBA and an MSc in Computer Science.

Kumar is a speaker at Gartner and ProgIO, but his main role is to provide strategic guidance to D&B customers on how to best leverage technology and data to drive digital strategy.

As the main quote above reveals, Kumar believes that AI will help deliver change and that companies should embrace rather than fear it. But he recognises that huge challenges remain, from transparency and ethics to how companies deal with an increasingly hybrid workforce.

What was your first role in tech and what is your current role today?

Kumar Dun and Bradstreet
Kumar Rathnam, Head of Digital Solutions at Dun & Bradstreet (D&B)

I started out as a software engineer for a financial trading software company in Singapore. I was a full-stack developer but mostly enjoyed interacting with business users to capture business requirements. I equally enjoyed writing complex SQLs which was my wheelhouse.

Fast forward 25 years and three countries, my current role is a leader for the Digital Advisory Services team at D&B, advising customers on digital strategy, best practices and how to best leverage data, insights and technology to drive growth.

Who in tech do you find inspiring, and why?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. I like his human-centric approach towards technology. It’s not the piece of tech that he’s excited about, but the value it delivers to an organisation or an individual. He makes it easy for everyone to understand that connection and the use of technology. I share the same view.

What jobs do you think AI might replace?

Before AI replaces jobs, it will enhance current jobs. It will enable workers to be more efficient through the tools they use and the information they access to do their jobs more efficiently.

This will result in higher productivity which will eventually result in some job reduction. However, this job reduction will be made up through new job opportunities for building AI and AI-enabled applications and tools.

It is the same as knowing the ingredients in our food, where it came from and then the recipe.

AI still has a lot of areas to figure out, especially the data piece. Today there is no visibility into data sources that are used to train models. It is the same as knowing the ingredients in our food, where it came from and then the recipe. Having legitimate data sources and compensating data owners for data usage in AI models is critical for AI’s next leap and wide commercial adoption.

There are a lot of areas where AI has to mature, like accuracy, determining fit, intellectual property, ethics, data governance and regulation before getting to the phase of job replacement. And then it must be plugged in and embedded into many applications where it can operate at a certain level to take over jobs.

The initial types of jobs that AI will have a direct impact on are front desk and customer service.

What are the major factors influencing the future of work?

There are various factors but the one that’s going to play a major role would be remote work and hybrid work, balanced with a need for human interaction and collaboration. Of course, AI will be baked into every layer of the work environment and job function, which will also change the way we work.

Which tech skills will be in most demand over the next 12 months? And ten years?

I don’t foresee the current demand trend changing drastically in the next 12 months. However, over the next few years, there would be new initiatives to deploy AI-powered solutions that would drive demand for skills to understand AI models and integrate them into existing applications and tools. This includes leveraging generative models to build human interaction layers and AI as a core capability within business systems.

Demand for data engineering and science jobs will continue to go up, along with a ton of demand for building microservices leveraging AI. Tech developers will gain a huge efficiency boost through AI-powered IDEs [such as GitHub Copilot], which will result in higher throughput and enable them to work closely with business users. 

It’s the democratisation of AI that will open up the door for business people to interact with technology and the power of data to extract business value without any technical skills or the need for a technical resource layer.

Is there any science fiction writer that, in your view, successfully predicts the future?

I’m a non-fiction guy and big fan of Scott Galloway, who tries to stay closer to reality but makes bold predictions, backed by science and factual data. He has been predicting the future of the workplace and talks about the importance of freshers [recent graduates] working in person and having real connection with people at work to build up their career and drive innovation — this will be the competitive advantage for both the employee and the employer.

What fields of work or industries do you think will accelerate because of technology?

Wearing my ambitious hat, I’d say, every sector of the economy will be touched by the AI tech revolution. This doesn’t mean AI is going to take over the world, but every piece of technology and system will get an upgrade either through an AI engine or powered by an AI model that will make it smarter, more efficient and user-friendly. The IVR [interactive voice response] we all hate to interact with will suddenly become smarter and human-compatible.

robotic coffee arm
“The robotic arm coffee machine at the airport, which everyone ignored, will have its loyal customers”

The robots that stayed as robots collecting dust will now look and act more human. The robotic arm coffee machine at the airport, which everyone ignored, will have its loyal customers. Rules-based automation that runs the automation systems across all industries will have continuous improvement built into it, which will make it smarter every day to drive efficiency and improve productivity. This won’t happen overnight, but it’s coming.

How do you think the work office will change in the next ten years?

I believe we may end up in a spot where there will be a set of jobs that make it mandatory to be in the same office, while others would be fine working permanently remote. And then there’s hybrid. Companies will also pay a premium salary for workers to be onsite to drive innovation and collaboration.

We are truly in a pivotal moment and I’m personally excited to embark on this journey where in-person, remote and hybrid work are trying to find their place while Generative AI is disrupting the market and businesses are challenged to be more efficient without compromising on innovation and growth. It can’t get any more challenging and interesting.

Also published in this series

Our thanks to Kumar for taking the time to share his thoughts on the future of work. For more predictions, read on:

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Tim Danton

Tim has worked in IT publishing since the days when all PCs were beige, and is editor-in-chief of the UK's PC Pro magazine. He has been writing about hardware for TechFinitive since 2023.