Ricardo Viana Vargas, Executive Director, Brightline Initiative
Barely a day goes by without some new claim made on behalf of smart machines. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are already changing our lives. In future they will automate many of our everyday tasks – from driverless cars to shopping drones.
We take for granted many of these technological advances. We barely raise an eyebrow, for example, when our favorite stores target us with offers that seem almost telepathic in their accuracy, using matching techniques that rely on machine learning.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has named this era “the 4th Industrial Revolution” because many of the technologies available today (virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, robotics, blockchain, to name a few) represent a new paradigm, changing productivity through automation. WEF founder Klaus Schwab described it as a culmination of emerging technologies, arguing that today’s revolution is different in scale, scope and complexity from any that have come before.
The 4th industrial revolution is characterized by a range of new technologies that are integrating the physical, digital and biological worlds, affecting all disciplines, economies, industries and governments, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human. Already, they are changing how we live, work and consume through new industry processes, smart cities, connected homes, driverless cars, wearable devices, and new approaches to healthcare. In the future, they will disrupt and reinvent business, jobs and every other aspect of our lives.
So, what does this brave new world mean for strategy, management and leadership? It is already clear that smarter machines will have a profound effect on how organizations are structured and how they operate.
“A number of industries have been automated for years, and that automation continues at pace,” observes Maja Korika, an associate professor at Warwick Business School who carries out research in this area. “What is perhaps most concerning is the speed at which the biggest players are introducing these changes. If you take a company like Amazon, for instance, in 2017 it introduced over 50,000 new robots, a 100 per cent increase from the previous year. Estimates suggest some 20 per cent of its workforce may already be made up of robots.”
This shift is highly visible, and of course highly effective. After all, robots can work 24/7, 365 days a year, they do not have unions, they do not complain, there are less associatedcosts of providing an acceptable working environment, and they come with great efficiencies. As such, they present a powerful incentive for other firms to follow in Amazon’s robotic footsteps.
In one important regard, however, machines can never replace human beings – and that is because machines are not consumers of goods and services. Without people, machines would have no purpose.
Think about it. Machines are only as good as the tasks they are given. Without humans to direct them and to serve they are redundant. Robots can already build cars, for example, and it won’t be long before AI systems can drive them. But machines do not buy cars or have any need for them other than the transportation of people.
Similarly, when it comes to strategy execution it is the human element that is vital. Machines are very efficient at answering questions; but it is human beings who must pose the questions. Asking the right questions is at the heart of good strategy.
Take Amazon once again: we are all amazed at the ability of machines to track our preferences and suggest other purchases that match our selection criteria. Or the ability of Spotify to tune into our musical tastes and find similar artists to those we like.
At the 10th Global Peter Drucker Forum we will discuss the role of robots in our society and organizations, and try to answer questions such as: Do leaders in the 21st century need to become as good in understanding the human dimension as they are in grasping the latest scientific discovery, technology or management technique? Do we want a machine-driven rather than a human-driven world?
My own feeling is that the discussion about how AI and machines will control our world and lives is in danger of becoming buried in hyperbole. Organizations and leaders are actually discussing how machines should do the work, instead of how to become better humans to work with other humans to solve the most complex and challenging problems our societies face today and in the years to come. The surprising challenge of our times is the need to focus on us and our humanity. Remember that machines, whether they be robots or 3D printers, are simply tools. The big question is: how can we best put these new tools to work so that they help and maximize the potential of the most people?
About the author:
Ricardo Viana Vargas is Executive Director of the Brightline Initiative (brightline.org)
This article is one in a series related to the 10th Global Peter Drucker Forum, with the theme management. the human dimension, taking place on November 29 & 30, 2018 in Vienna, Austria #GPDF18
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