Business leaders are frequently confronted by notions of job-killing automation and headlines on the variation of the theme that “Robots Will Steal Our Jobs.” Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, Silicon Valley figurehead, and champion of technology-driven innovation even goes a step further by suggesting AI is a fundamental threat to human civilisation.
In part, the critics of AI are driven by the knowledge that ‘white collar jobs’ are the ones that are now under threat. The robot on the assembly line is now a familiar image. AI in middle management is new. That does not mean that we should succumb to scaremongering – but it does mean we need to engage with some serious questions.
How will AI affect the workplace?
For example, if computers can learn to diagnose early-stage cancers with far greater accuracy, what happens to highly trained oncologists? Will corporate decision-makers, with their human flaws and biases, find their expertise overtaken by the supreme rationality of data-driven analytics and algorithms? Who is responsible when a driver-less car mistakes a traffic light for a pine tree? What happens to your executive assistant if much of their role can be outsourced to a ‘bot?
There are societal issues to consider too. How do we employ people until they are 68 if so many jobs can be done by computers that don’t have any caring responsibilities, holiday requirements, or training costs?
These are just some of the issues – both banal and profound – that should occupy business leaders, as well as policy-makers. AI touches on the nature of work, job-destruction and job-creation, productivity increases and skill shortages, human judgement and the limits of digital logic.
In the executive suite, there are two broad issues to consider: how to lead the business and the workforce through this period of extreme disruption; and how artificial intelligence will impact upon the process of management and leadership itself.
The key to both is to understand the nature of work and what we spend our working days actually doing. For the most part, jobs are a daily combination of separate tasks, and it is worth quoting David Autor, Ford Professor of Economics at MIT, and a one of the leading thinkers on this subject: “Most work processes draw upon a multifaceted set of inputs: labour and capital; brains and brawn; creativity and rote repetition; technical mastery and intuitive judgment; perspiration and inspiration; adherence to rules and judicious application of discretion.”
The business case for AI
It should be clear from this description that plenty of tasks can be automated – but plenty of others do not lend themselves to performance by machine. And as Autor points out, each of these inputs have an essential role so that improvements in one do not necessarily eliminate the need for the others.
In other words, improvements to productivity generated by automating rote tasks can increase the economic value of the remaining tasks. Criticism of AI has often fallen for the lump of labour fallacy. But this is not necessarily a zero-sum game: if certain tasks are allocated to a machine, human workers can be more productive in others.
For now, the tasks that are typically better performed by humans tend to be those that are related to creative thought and human interaction. These are skills that cannot be underestimated as companies strive to mine digital technologies, navigate the internet for insight, engage consumers in new and meaningful ways and reinvent their business operations for the future.
Consider my area of expertise: HR and executive search. AI can learn to select CVs purely on the basis of who has been successful to date. But in reverting to the norm, it is unlikely to help you diversify your workforce or find the exceptional candidate that falls outside your current talent profile but who can clearly add value to your business. At a time when the importance of a diversified workforce are well understood and considered to be a strategic imperative, there is much to be said for less rigorous rational human engagement.
As an executive, what do you need to consider?
Right now, the most important thing that business leaders can do is embrace both technology itself, and the idea that we are now in the age of AI. Genies like this do not fit easily back into bottles. Human intelligence will need to work alongside the artificial variety. And leaders need to understand where and how technology enables their business.
They also need to look at the tasks that the organisation undertakes, rather than the job roles it needs to fill. The modern leader remains strategic and visionary, but that will require different skills to manage robots alongside motivating humans. There will be much greater emphasis on matching tasks to workers and enabling flexible skill sets that aren’t confined to job roles.
Leaders should also be prepared to give up control in certain areas – but gain it in others. They also need to develop policies and governance to ensure human agency remains and responsibility is not completely abdicated to machine-based judgments.
The threat implicit in today’s headlines is that AI will take executive leaderships roles. What is far more likely is that AI will help enhance the performance of individuals in these positions. Even as AI gets more advanced its own form of creativity will open up new avenues for humans to pursue. We can create the best of both worlds: the productivity benefits of AI and jobs that continue to deliver income and dignity. Overcoming this most modern strain of tech-phobia and embracing change is the way forward.