Artificial Intelligence is at the core of nearly all modern organisations but before we allow the machines to overtake us, leaders must prioritise human decision-making or risk collapse.
AI is now dominating everything leaders do as it becomes tied to the core of organisational operating models, defining how companies realise and execute innumerable tasks.
From a consumer perspective it’s easy to see AI working through personal assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Amazon’s Alexa. All of these learn from user behaviour to serve them more effectively, a development which has also become the norm at an industrial level.
Doing away with mundane tasks
A wide-range of tasks and jobs have been overtaken by AI through advances in programming and software, although the essential paradox remains – what’s problematic for humans is relatively easy for AI, and what’s difficult for AI can be much easier for humans.
Virtually all major credit card companies now use AI for fraud detection and surveying multiple data inputs, ranging from security cameras and telephone calls, through to almost all other Internet activities, as machines look for patterns on a mass scale that humans are likely to miss or ignore.
AI is at its most efficient as a method of managing repetitive, routine and mundane tasks, but its scope is constantly expanding into new and innovative fields.
Systems are now being employed in everything from creative writing; entertainment, search and rescue, through to child, elder, and patient care, and virtual psychotherapy where many people prefer the anonymity of sharing their innermost problems and secrets with a computer.
Beating the Turing test?
Despite these rapid advances, the famous ‘Turing test’ – created by Alan Turing in 1950 as a means of assessing whether a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour is equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human – still holds true.
While modern AI is certainly beginning to press boundaries of human-like behaviour and intuition, even when machines appear to act in similar ways to a real person, it doesn’t mean they have comparable intelligence.
An algorithm’s predictions are far too intricate for most people to understand and fully anticipate the outcomes, meaning that systems may become viewed with scepticism and fear, particularly when there are no humans involved who can be held accountable.
For example, would you be completely comfortable about a machine making judgements as to whether your tax calculations are correct, or if you should be denied a bank loan or medical insurance?
As AI displaces human activity it is changing the very concept of the firm. The biggest challenge for leaders is that AI systems are viewed as opaque black boxes, trusted to make vital choices or despised for the cold calculations they make.
Will AI take a leadership role?
Accountability, traceability and confidence are among buzzwords of the moment, as people become aware their day-to-day lives are being governed by algorithms.
The view that AI will soon be inheriting leadership functions is moving from science fiction to reality and its intense and disruptive impact demands a rethink of the essence of effective leadership.
Some leadership qualities – deep domain expertise, decisiveness, authority, and short-term task focus – are losing their uniqueness.
In truth AI systems increasingly perform faster and better in these areas than humans. In this sense, AI will increasingly take over many aspects of the hard, data-driven elements of leadership, such as the raw cognitive processing of facts and information.
Other governance qualities, including soft skills, humility, adaptability and engagement, are likely to play a vital role in the more-agile necessities of leadership.
As a result, personality traits, attitude, and other behaviours that enable individuals to join as teams that achieve common goals or shared purpose will be viewed as the more critical leadership capabilities.
The contrasting view is that AI can never replace human leadership qualities, as these allow people to be fully creative and express different ideologies.
Future leaders may well be viewed as ‘philosophers’ who understand technology alongside what it means to our human identity, and the kind of society we would like to see emerge.
This perspective is in good company with ‘The Republic,’ authored by Plato in around 375BC, which argues that kings should become philosophers, or that philosophers should become kings, as they possess virtue by capturing the knowledge required to rule the Republic successfully and justly.
As automation supersedes decision-making tasks, the next generation of leaders will be forced to focus on higher-level responsibilities involving human aspects of innovative thinking, employee development, and bridging the gap between technology and people.
It is quite clear that the future of leadership will not be about being average, but excellence. Leaders must exhibit ever-higher levels of performance, continuous learning and sustainability. The essential investment will be to continually strive towards building a more flexible mindset.
One view is that that leadership cannot be taught, but it can be learned. This applies to the AI era. In this digital world, leadership depends more on discovering the world and fully expressing yourself, rather than learning what is taught in most business schools or executive education programmes.
Who guards the guardians?
AI system oversight or guardians are needed to ensure that the decisions made by autonomous agents will improve the value of the assets under their care, while also protecting human rights and sustainability. Alternatively humans need to better understand how to keep operational AI systems in line.
The questions raised by philosophers in Ancient Greece still apply today – ‘who will guard the guardians?’
Humanity’s temptation is to constantly improve itself towards the attainment of ‘god-like’ capabilities. As a race we strive to live longer, become stronger and pursue happiness. This is a universal desire that requires advancement in technology and the acquisition of new skills. While our technology is still progressing, we humans can envisage the kind of future we ultimately want to emerge.
For example, AI can be a powerful tool in the fight against climate change. Data analysis helps predict hazardous weather patterns and increases accountability by precisely monitoring if governments and companies are holding to set emissions targets.
However, from a leadership perspective, AI is still dramatically adapting organisational forms, such as autonomous decentralised organisations (DAOs) - an emerging form of legal structure with no central governing body and whose members share a common goal to act in the best interest of the entity.
AI still missing the human touch
AI still can’t equal the emotional complexities confronting leaders on a daily basis. Although in their relatively new state, DAOs display the need for shared leadership in the form of governing councils.
Despite this, organisations will continue to rely on fundamental values that mark the difference between humans and machines in areas including creativity, an ability to show empathy and care, imagination and curiosity, and supply genuine respect and understanding.
AI’s contribution of precision, speed, efficiency and transparency through its capacity for handling mass volumes of data has already had a profound impact on leadership. In addition to its dominance of routine tasks, leadership requirements for the future will involve:
- Sensitive engagement – enabling critical stakeholders to recognise their concerns as being addressed and the issues they face respected
- Alignment – in the growth of different interests which are surfaced through big data manipulation, but only through an engagement process that has stakeholders identifying with an agreed way forward
- Adaptability – of the changing and dynamic nature of context, but only on a platform of engaged and aligned stakeholders
- Oversight – the contribution from boards that enables greater value to be realised from the assets or organisation under their care. This is in effect no different from current practice, but the need to be responsive to speed and transparency requires an upgrade of skills and mindset.
Taking these important factors into account enables leadership to becomes the driving force behind of AI.
Not taking this approach results in AI intimidating and bending leadership towards a more transactional mindset with potentially disastrous consequences. Short term profits may rise, but the delivery of high standards of service and more sustainable and longer-term stakeholder engagement will ultimately collapse.
It is people who make a difference this point is more applicable than ever before. Neglecting the human factor at the heart of all organisations threatens to turn people into mere transactional commodities, and the first casualties will be trust and reputation. Without this, no AI system or organisation stands the slightest chance of a sustainable future.