AI’s one true X factor: Leadership

If there are any eternal truths about emerging technologies, it’s that there are always naysayers. Some who deride the value of the latest ingenuity prove prescient. Others, not so much.

Ken Olson, president, chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., famously once advised, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” 

Regarding cloud computing, Oracle Chairman and founder Larry Ellison famously complained, “Maybe I’m an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it? It’s complete gibberish. It’s insane. When is this idiocy going to stop?”

More recently, Tesla Chairman and founder Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and more than 1,100 people in the industry signed a petition calling for a six-month break from training artificial intelligence systems in order to allow for the development of shared safety protocols. Sensible perhaps, and maybe not exactly naysaying, but certainly a notable detraction about AI.

Of course, for every naysayer there is an evangelist. On the artificial intelligence front, Microsoft founder Bill Gates argues that we have entered the “Age of AI” believing that generative AI is “the most important advance in technology since the graphical user interface” and “as fundamental as the creation of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone.”

Mark Cuban, entrepreneur, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and one of the “sharks” on the venture capital meets game show program Shark Tank,believes “the world’s first trillionaires are going to come from somebody who masters AI.”

The key to navigating these extremes is putting emerging technologies in context. The reality is that the AI train is leaving the station. The question is: Do we as a species, do you as a voting participant in a democracy, a consumer, and an IT leader want to be/have to be on that train?

Make no debate: AI is here

I am convinced that the AI train is one IT leaders not only have to be on, but in the lead car. CIOs need to create an environment where the right conversations about the right questions occur guiding preparations for an AI-driven economy. 

Benedict Evans, an independent technology analyst formerly with Andreessen Horowitz, created three possible ways of thinking about AI in the March 27 episode of his popular podcast Another Podcast entitled“GPT-4 Is Here, Now What?

The first possibility is that generative AI is one of those once a decade technology shifts similar to the arrival of the web or the iPhone. The second possibility is that we are witnessing a once every 50-year technology revolution similar to the arrival of PCs or the semiconductor. Evans’ third category is, “Oh my god we have accidentally invented the atom bomb.” And by the way everyone can cobble a generative AI together — in their garage, with household tools using widely available (i.e., not uranium) and affordable raw materials.

What Evans is saying with his classic narrative panache is that AI is not a technology you want to sit on the sidelines and wait to see how it plays out.

You do not want to employ what Gunpei Yokoi, the inventor of the Nintendo Game Boy, called a “lateral thinking with withered technology” strategy. What Yokoi-san meant by this is, whenever possible achieve sought for outcomes with older, cheaper, commodified technologies. You can’t get to the future without AI.

That said, Boston Consulting Group and MIT Sloan Management Review found a “gap between ambition and execution,” with 84% anticipating that AI will be a source of competitive advantage while only 40% have a strategy around AI and about a quarter having adopted any AI into their services or processes.

CIOs need to prepare their organizations for the coming AI era. They need to unambiguously signal to all stakeholders that the enterprise is onboard the AI train. And CIOs will have to manage AI timelines: Generative AI is one of those technologies that is exponentially better now than it was six months ago and will likely be exponentially better in 12 months. The general feeling among technology strategists is that if you have not briefed your board of directors on the opportunities, responsibilities, and liabilities associated with generative AI about six months ago, you are woefully behind.

After all, more than one million users signed up for ChatGPT within five days of its November 30, 2022 release. By February 2023, ChatGPT had reached 100 million users. Meanwhile, venture capitalist firms invested approximately $4.6 billion into generative AI companies globally last year, up from $1.9 billion in 2019, according to PitchBook Data.

Embracing AI leadership

Still, AI has gone beyond fascination and speculation; there are real benefits to be had already. Economists at Goldman Sachs conclude that generative AI could raise labor-productivity growth by almost 1.5 percentage points a year, a de facto doubling from its current rate, and research from Microsoft suggests that developers can perform tasks more than 50% faster when using an AI assistant. 

In practice, however, making good on the promise of AI — without falling prey to its pitfalls — requires leadership. CIOs need to proceed cautiously, recognizing that mistakes will be made and that there will be surprises. AI initiatives should be reviewed quarterly with regards to harms and benefits. At the very least CIOs should familiarize themselves and senior management with the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights released by the US Office for Science and Technology Policy.

Some organizations have put “AI ethics” advisory boards in place while others are contemplating creating a new role in the C-suite: the chief AI ethics officer. At the very least CIOs need to signal that AI ethics are being considered.

Artificial Intelligence, Innovation, IT Leadership