Imagine J.P. Morgan today walking into the bank that still bears his name. Or Yenta from Fiddler on the Roof waking up in the era of Tinder. In both cases, the businesses that each leader oversaw have been radically altered by technological advances and algorithms that grow ever smarter through artificial intelligence. Yet, at their core, the primary goal of each enterprise remains unchanged: make money; find love.
The real question CEOs face today is not if they will adapt to technological upheaval — they have to, that’s a given — but whether they’re able to meld human minds and machines in a way that increases productivity while unleashing the unique power of people to think creatively. Because with AI on the brink of infiltrating nearly every aspect of every industry, we’re about to face a profound shift in the way humans and machines interact in the workplace.
The CEO who does not understand this risks being left behind.
“We have not even begun to scratch the surface of how we can use technology to work more efficiently, and more happily,” says Kim Scott, former CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, and Twitter, co-founder of Candor, Inc., and author of the forthcoming book, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss without Losing Your Humanity. “It took industrialists 100 years to figure out how to re-organize factories to take advantage of electricity and we are only just beginning to figure out how to re-organize the way we work around the supercomputers we all carry around in our pockets, and AI. The key is to make sure that we put our humanity at the center of all this power so that we manage the technology and don’t let the technology manage us.”
Technology, it is said, becomes most valuable when we no longer make note of its presence. Smartphones have become such an extension of our arms and brains that we’re no longer aware of pulling them out of our pockets. For those of us with tiny robots at home, asking, “Alexa, what’s the weather today?” has become as second nature as fetching the paper at the front door once was. But there’s a difference between accepting new technology into the home or office and understanding how to integrate it into a business. Applying AI in a manner that allows machines and humans to work together in harmony will maximize the human potential of any given CEO’s team. With the help of AI, the human brain is liberated to think more strategically and tackle higher-order problems.
We call this AI-infused business of the future FuturaCorp. In imagining this corporation, we have had to envision not only how AI can be integrated seamlessly into the day-to-day processes of work, but also how CEOs can best prepare for what will amount to a second industrial revolution.
To understand how this brave new world of business will play out, today’s CEO would do well to watch the recent award-winning film, Hidden Figures, in which math-savvy African-American women were referred to as — gasp! — “computers” right before the moment when the first IBM mainframe was being installed at NASA to replace them. (Before the electronic era, the word “computer” simply meant a human who makes calculations.) But the manager of the “computers” realized that the mainframe could create new opportunities for her staff to operate and program the computers or solve more complex calculations. And so the radical increase in calculation speed enabled some of the women who were previously mired in the practical crunching of numbers to free their brains and become Fortran coders or think about the larger picture: how to put astronaut John Glenn in orbit and bring him back to earth without killing him.
As a metaphor for this next phase of business, it’s as good as any. Tomorrow’s CEO will now be tasked with using their staff’s newly-freed brainpower to devise heretofore undiscovered ways to put humans and machines — symbolically, at least — into orbit. Staffing, roles and hierarchies must be reassessed. Any job AI can do, it will probably end up doing. Some jobs will require both AI and human input while many new jobs will spring from the freedoms AI allows. These new workers, freed to think more, can become tomorrow’s innovators.
So, let’s go back to J.P. Morgan and our imaginary Fiddler on the Roof matchmaker, Yenta. If Morgan were running his bank today, no doubt he would use the power of AI to detect fraud and provide better customer service and investment advice, as well as to spend more time thinking about how to transform banking. Yenta, freed from hunting down and organizing every match for her clients in person, could use algorithms to optimize match-making. They may have to change the lyrics of the song from “Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match,” to “Algorithm, algorithm, make me a match” but that would be a small price to pay for the benefits of an AI-driven world.