In Iselin, Grant Thornton Takes Deep Dive into AI by Hiring JT Kostman

Dr. JT Kostman is a data scientist, mathematician and psychologist. He is an expert in applied artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive computing.

But he’s also a guy who enjoys walking in the woods, riding motorcycles and reading a good book. He tries to read 250 to 300 a year.

“Yes, I’m a bit of a bibliophile, much to my wife’s dismay,” Kostman said. “When we moved to our current house, she had me give away over a thousand books from my collection. That was heart-wrenching. I won’t ever admit to her how many I kept, though.”

Kostman embraces life, and the 94-year-old advisory, tax and audit firm Grant Thornton has embraced him.

They brought him on board to take their clients to next level. He is based in the firm’s Iselin, New Jersey, office, where he’s helping Grant Thornton to break new ground in areas such as AI, blockchain and analytics – as well as machine learning and the internet of things (IoT).

Kostman, who reports to national managing principal of advisory services, Srikant Sastry, believes that artificial intelligence is the future of business, and should be implemented now.

We [Grant Thornton] plan to equitably distribute that future. It’s actually one of the three reasons why I’m here. In a nutshell, it’s all because of the people, the perspective and the possibilities.”

Regarding reason number one, he said, “In the short time since I came on board, I’ve already become great friends with the [Grant Thornton] CEO, Mike McGuire. He’s just a passionate, brilliant, focused, principled, pragmatic guy who sees what the future can be, and also sees what’s in the way and how we can get there.”

As for reason number two, Grant Thornton is focused on helping clients improve. “That speaks to the perspective of Grant Thornton, which just came out with a marketing campaign that says, ‘Status Go,’” said Kostman. “That resonated with me because that really speaks to who they are, speaks to the real, primary ethos of the company. You can sit back in the status quo and watch the world go by and lose out, or you can get off the bench, get in the game. And you just might need a coach, somebody to teach you the rules, somebody to help you get in gear that you can do this.

The third reason, the possibilities, Kostman says, are based on an upcoming economic shift that will be the biggest in history. “Forrester Research [Cambridge, Mass.] is projecting that businesses adopting AI and big data will gain $1.2 trillion at the expense of their less-informed peers by 2020. If true, that would mean an amount equivalent to the annual GDP of Mexico flowing from the mid-cap and small companies without these capabilities to those few in the Fortune 500 and their equivalents that do. How do we [Grant Thornton] better enable these people to life-size the game, be able to make it more reasonable for mid-cap, mid-companies and small players to be able to play?”

When asked what percentage of American companies are not embracing or will not embrace AI, Kostman revealed some startling numbers. “You know, I just wrote a post about exactly that, quoting some research, I forget from where, but it was something like 85% of senior executives realize that it’s AI or die, basically. And, of those, the [research] says that only 25% are actually going to do anything about it.”

Actually, he believes that 25% is an overestimate. “I think 25% think they’ll want to do something, but one of the challenges with AI right now is it’s been so hyped, and cottage industries are springing up to take advantage of people. You know, when I speak at conferences, I tell them that when I hear these people speaking about AI, I have no idea what they’re talking about. So, how can a CEO possibly know if they’re being hoodwinked? One of the things I will say from the stage is it’s really as simple as this: My definition of AI is getting computers to do what they do on TV and in the movies.”

Kostman also bemoaned the fact that many companies are going to be doing a lot of catching up with regard to AI. “Everyone will talk about it, but what will they actually do about it? This may be a terrible analogy, but it’s like losing weight and getting in shape. We all know what we need to do: We need to eat better, eat less and exercise more. And, yet, it’s a multibillion-dollar industry. Why? Because we package it and put it in different places and frames. But even at that, how many people actually get off the couch? How many people actually eat better?

“You see exactly the same thing in corporations. One of the things I talk about when I go to these conferences or meet with these people is that this isn’t beyond their reach. This is stuff they can start to do even with their own resources, even now.” It’s a matter of Status Go, instead of embracing and being willing to live with the status quo.

“You can move into embracing AI, machine learning, IoT, analytics, blockchain and robotics. All these things are accessible and available and within most organizations. Even if companies don’t have the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities to be able to act on some of these things, they can partner with someone who knows what they’re talking about. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t embrace some of these capabilities ‒ other than inertia, other than fear, other than an absence of knowledge, which tends to be the root cause for all of it.”

Kostman’s reflects on his early life was marked by child abuse. He ran away often and lived on the streets, and his jobs included being a paramedic, deep sea rescue diver and police officer, among other things. He reflected on how all of this had molded him. Despite his early hardships, he said, “Once in a moment of self-indulgence I told my wife that I am who I am in spite of my childhood, and she corrected me and made the point that that’s absolutely not true: It’s because of my childhood. And so, I think it’s formed my ethos, my perspective. And I think that’s what, when I look back reflectively to my early life, motivates me to solve interesting problems for the betterment of others.

“You know, I’m absolutely the luckiest person in the world. I have a wonderful wife, I have wonderful children and wonderful grandchildren. I live exactly where I want to live, do exactly what I want to do, and I have a motorcycle that works well. And I get to live and work in New Jersey.”

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