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Artificial Intelligence in the Blue-Collar World

With contextere, Gabe Batstone is using AI to help empower blue-collar workers with relevant information delivered right to their fingertips.

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Show Notes

Just because you work in the blue-collar world doesn’t mean you have no need for tech and artificial intelligence. In fact, Gabe Batstone (LinkedIn, Twitter), the CEO of contextere, believes that blue-collar workers can benefit from AI more than most.

In this episode, Gabe and Ian dive into the ways that contextere is delivering relevant information right into the hands of the men and women working on job sites around the world. They discuss how AI and AR will continue to grow and change, and the ways that both will continue to make job sites and the employees on them safer and more efficient than ever before.   

Topics Discussed: Blue-collar work, AI, AR, technology, innovation, mobile

Why start contextere? — (1:55)

  • It started with asking a number of questions: Why did the technology revolution leave behind the workers who work the hardest? Why are people dying on the job? And why is there under- or unemployment?
  • Gabe came from a blue-collar background and he thought there was an opportunity to combine AI and the blue-collar industry to answer those questions and come up with solutions.

Who contextere works with — (3:50)

  • Founded contextere 3.5 years ago and the idea was Ironman vs. Skynet and the fear that technology would mean the end of work. There was a transition that moved away from fear and more toward an awareness that humans and technology would need to come together to augment work.
  • “The future of work does involve humans.”
  • Most jobs involve 20-30 distinct tasks, some of which AI can help with. But AI cannot do all those tasks as well as a human.
  • “We believe we can create ironmen and ironwomen by combining the best of technology with the best of humanity.”
  • Computers are good at analysis, but humans understand judgment and bring curiosity to their work.
  • “We’re going to create better jobs where people get paid for what’s between their ears versus what is in their hands.”



How the need for tech shapes different parts of the world — (7:50)

  • For the foreseeable future, there will continue to be a need for “warm hands on cold steel” everywhere.
  • There are three differences: Technical infrastructure, cultural interactions, and demographics.

Gabe’s time in Afghanistan — (10:00)

  • Gabe spent time in Kabul and he had the chance to see the impact technology had on the residents there.
  • “It was amazing to see the relationship that people had to technology.”
  • Access isn’t limited just in places you would think. Even in rural Canada and other first-world countries, there are limits to access to technology, the internet and other IT.
  • 3G, 4G, and 5G are not as ubiquitous as we may think and that affects people’s ability and access.  


Explaining the idea of “warm hands on cold steel” — (12:50)

  • Gabe and his team spent a lot of time watching people on the job and asked the question, “How do we use AI to empower people?” To find the answer, Gabe and his co-founder spent time in the industry, on top of skyscrapers being built, at the factories where planes were being made, to find out how to augment the life and work of employees.
  • There was always a checklist that is given to any person doing a job regardless of what their skill or knowledge was and they were expected to just do the work.
  • What Gabe did with contextere was put the human first and find out what information they need, what relevant data would be helpful for them to do the job correctly and safely.

The idea of connected devices and the IoT — (17:17)

  • It’s impossible to keep training and all the materials up to date because of the rate of change.
  • There is an opportunity for technology to come in and bridge the gaps between needing to train people and having technology that can do certain tasks.

How far away are we from augmented reality? — (20:35)

  • There are niche applications of AR, but there are a lot of technical challenges and cost factors that make widespread use of AR prohibitive.
  • We could still be years before we have functional wearables, but the industry and the tech will grow and evolve every year.

Integration within blue-collar AI — (22:50)

  • Access to the data is critical.
  • Through APIs you can get access to data fairly simple.
  • Trust can be a barrier to entry because companies need to grant access to outside entities like contextere to make their systems better.
  • Sometimes when people see these kinds of solutions it becomes an academic exercise and they try to get every kind of data. It should be more about finding the minimum amount of information to get the outcome you want.

Mobile Integration —  (25:00)

  • “We weren’t about the hardware, we’re about the data. It doesn’t matter what device the user has, the important thing is what you are trying to tell the person.”
  • “Get focused on the outcome and making that outcome better every day, every month, every year. Eventually, the return on investment will pay for itself.”



Identifying the stakeholders involved in the implementation — (27:30)

  • The value proposition is driven by operational impact. So the operational people have to care and be bought in.
  • Gabe suggests starting small. Have a vision, but start in a safe, controlled environment so you can prove out your use case.
  • You don’t just need buy-in, you need intelligence and knowledge the stakeholders bring as to where and how the product fits in.
  • It starts with collaboration and engagement with the customer.

Lightning Round — (30:00)

  • TripIt is Gabe’s favorite app
  • Junk mail filtering is his favorite form of AI
  • Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Plays hockey and tennis
  • Best advice: “Play in traffic. We underestimate how much value there is in just being engaged.”
  • Borders matter when you have a company outside the U.S. and are trying to work within the U.S. Having subsidiaries on the ground in the U.S. makes it much easier.
    • In a B2B environment, the idea that you can satisfy a customer from far away is a big risk.

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