What makes artificial intelligence different than earlier technologies is that the system learns as data is fed into it. What’s most important for business leaders to know is that AI is no longer some kind of “gee whiz” technology, but increasingly key to competing effectively in today’s marketplace. As the technology continues to evolve from complex integrated systems to a modular ecosystem, even small and medium enterprises will find that they need to adopt these capabilities or fall behind.
Today, a new debate is likely to begin over artificial intelligence. Much like in the early 1970s, we have increasing investment in a new technology, diminished productivity growth and “experts” predicting massive worker displacement. Yet now we have history and experience to guide us and can avoid making the same mistakes. Investment in digital technology in the 70s and 80s was focused on supporting existing business models. It wasn’t until the late 90s that we began to see significant new business models being created.
The future, in fact, will be driven by humans collaborating with other humans to design work for machines to create value for other humans. Any viable cognitive strategy is not to cut costs but to extend capabilities. So perhaps most importantly, what business leaders need to understand about artificial intelligence is that it is not inherently utopian or apocalyptic, but a business tool. Much like any other business tool its performance is largely dependent on context and it is a leader’s job to help create that context.
While it is true that technology can do some wonderful things, the measurable impact has been relatively meagre. At the same time the power of digital technology is diminishing. Without advancement in the underlying technology, it is hard to see how digital technology will ever power another productivity boom. Perhaps the biggest reason that the digital revolution has been such a big disappointment is because we expected the technology to largely do the work for us.
The truth is that every disruptive era is not only fraught with danger, but also opportunity. Every generation faces unique challenges and must find the will to solve them. Today, at the beginning of a new century, we are seeing similar shifts that are far more powerful and are moving far more quickly. Disruption is no longer seen as merely an event, but a way of life and the fissures are there for all to see. Our future will depend on our determination to solve problems faster than our proclivity to continually create them.