Executive Education

How CEOs Can Prepare for the Autonomous Future

By now, you’ve probably heard the news: The robots are coming. Headlines proclaiming that autonomous machines will soon replace human laborers are ubiquitous. Books pondering the possibility of a jobless future are bestsellers. Buzzwords like “big data” give us a way to talk about the sea of change that is just around the corner.

But amid endless speculation about what the future holds, many people fail to realize that the autonomous revolution has already started. For business leaders, it’s time to embrace it or get left behind.

The Unstoppable Forward March

Opinions on whether our growing reliance on machines is “good” or “bad” for the economy (and for humans in general) are as varied as the technologies driving the discussion. But what’s not up for debate is that human behavior has been and will continue to be modified by technology. Moreover, human desires have driven the evolution of technology to unprecedented breakthroughs.

Advances in natural language processing and machine learning have led to the advent of robotic assistants like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa, which continue to change the way we interact with our environment at home. And the applications of artificial intelligence in nearly every industry, combined with the rise of the gig economy, has caused us to reconsider the value of traditional education, as well as the way we approach work.

For instance, chatbots are becoming increasingly more ubiquitous as businesses deploy them in tangent with human operators for improved, streamlined customer service. Some companies are built entirely on the capabilities of AI. Narrative Science is one example — its platform performs routine journalistic tasks, such as analyzing and interpreting data.

Some might assume capabilities like this mean AI will replace human workers. They’re not exactly wrong — jobs will change and some will certainly become obsolete, but AI will also create many more opportunities, some we haven’t even dreamed of yet. An economist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, David Autor, posits that the future autonomous economy will change the division of labor from blue collar versus white collar to routine versus nonroutine work.

While the consumer applications of many autonomous technologies — conversant robots, drones, and self-driving cars — often take up the most real estate in our imaginations, the business applications of those technologies might actually have a greater effect on us in the long run. If you’re a CEO or small business leader, regardless of industry, you’re likely to feel that impact much sooner. The good news: According to an IBM study, the use of AI has a positive correlation to business results.

Brace for Impact

Billionaire investor Mark Cuban recently said, “Artificial Intelligence, deep learning, machine learning — whatever you’re doing if you don’t understand it — learn it. Because otherwise you’re going to be a dinosaur in 3 years.”

His assertion might not be as far-fetched as it sounds, and CEOs especially should consider his advice. Not because machines or deep learning will replace critical thinking among executives (in most cases, they won’t), but because technology will likely reshape an organization sooner than later.

Here are three things you can start doing today to ensure you’re still around tomorrow:

  1. Get up to speed on the technology. CEOs must invest the necessary time and attention to understand what AI is and where the opportunities are. This understanding could prove to be the difference between your success and failure as a business leader.

    Of course, it’s unlikely that you have the time and resources to dedicate to becoming an AI expert, but you can take a big step forward by getting acquainted with some of the expert systems and software platforms available to help analyze your operations and develop strategy.

    Additionally, there are a number of quality email newsletters, podcasts, and online courses available for free, which could help you get a better grasp of AI fundamentals.

  1. Surround yourself with experts. CEOs shouldn’t just be looking to software for advice. For many, it would be wise to set up an expert think tank of leading AI researchers to develop solutions to complex business problems.

    Assign a chief innovation officer to drive the identification, piloting, and application of AI solutions across all aspects of the business. Develop partnerships with suppliers, consultants, vendors, customers, and other value chain partners that can help co-create AI solutions.

    Build an HR strategy for accommodating any workers that AI would replace and creating new roles that AI makes room for. Have your HR lead plot new decision-making trees ahead of any big change.

    If you’re looking to build an AI platform or service in-house, turn to recruiting agencies that specialize in tech hires, or utilize well-reviewed and experienced freelancers in the field.

  1. Aggregate data. As a CEO, you’re probably aware of the incredible potential that lies in the mountains of data your business generates. For most business leaders, the problem is how to turn that potential into real opportunity. The reality is that AI is the only way you’ll be able to make sense of that constant stream of data.

    Take advantage of the data analytics tools and frameworks that allow you to store more data, keep data secure, and analyze it quickly. Decisions that aren’t based on data are no better than guesses. In fact, one expert predicts that 40 percent of companies will use data analytics by 2020.

    Perhaps eventually, CEOs will have to decide whether to deploy AI in a narrow way — in niche areas such as HR, workflow, or strategy development — or to move their organizations forward as entirely autonomous corporations.

For now, any action you can take toward becoming a more informed business leader will move you and your organization in a positive direction. Change is certainly coming, but it’s also already happening, and the signs are everywhere. To ignore them would be a mistake.

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Mark Minevich
Mark Minevich is the principal founder of Going Global Ventures and venture partner of GVA Capital in Silicon Valley. He is also a senior fellow of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness in Washington, D.C.; a vice chair of Ventures and External Affairs at Comtrade Group; and senior advisor on Global Innovation and Technology of UNOPS. He is a taskforce member of the B20’s Digital Task Force as an expert in digitization, advanced autonomous systems, and the future of AI.