AI: What every CEO should be asking

The current sharp focus on the development and potential applications of artificial intelligence suggests it’s time for chief executives to pay attention. Here are ten key questions they should be asking to invest in AI’s transformative potential, says Rohit Talwar, global futurist

1. What’s the fuss about? From security to blockchain technology and 3D printing, every new technology development comes with exhortations for chief executives to place it top of their agenda. However, in the case of AI, it may well be the most important change we’ll see in the philosophy, practice and management of business. AI draws on and is combining with exponential performance developments in technologies such as computer hardware, big data management, the internet of things and the fields of machine-learning, neural networks, and robotics. As a result, AI is beginning to fulfill its potential of transforming businesses. Chief executives have to ensure they are investing the time and attention to understand what AI is, why so much is being invested and where the opportunities are.

2. What’s its potential? The place to start is to educate management about its potential, and undertake internal analysis of where it could be deployed and what competitors are doing. Medium to large enterprises in particular are bringing in AI experts to take a broader perspective of the potential roles it could play from smarter production management to customer targeting and broad-based decision-making.

3. How fast is it moving? The pace of AI development has caught most unaware. We are beginning to understand the scale of the investment being made by companies such as Google, IBM, Microsoft, Uber and Baidu. Many of the biggest developments and research projects are kept under the radar until launch, and we can only speculate on what we might see next, from robot lawyers to ultra-intelligent personal assistants.

4. How deep should we take it? Many firms are looking at relatively narrow deployments to automate rule-based decision-making, and predict future demand and customer behaviour from accumulated data. Others are looking at much broader deployments such as intelligent human resources, finance and legal advisers, and real-time data analytics of live transactions. Deployment of AI could lead to deep insights into the potential behaviour of employees, customers and partners.

5. Could it take the chief executive’s job? Some of the most extreme applications of AI include the creation of “human-free” automated businesses where everything from strategy to operational processes are embedded in the system. But we are not there yet.

6. Who should lead? Some companies are making it the responsibility of the chief executive, chief operating officer or business transformation head to drive the identification, piloting and application of AI solutions across all aspects of the business.

7. What would success look like? “Fail fast and cheap” – bringing in suppliers, customers and other value-chain partners early on to see if there is commercial merit in an idea. There can be as much learning from a failed project as a successful one.

8. How do we preserve the feminine? Organisations display a mix of so-called feminine and masculine characteristics that manifest in organisational culture, service philosophy, and the assumptions and beliefs which underpin decision-making. The challenge is to maintain the feminine in the organization, avoiding the tendency for AI systems to display a more masculine and robotic persona.

9. How will staff respond? Focus needs to shift to how AI is supporting professionals within a business, saving time, driving efficiency and increasing the value of work done.

10. How do we address social impact? While no future predictions are certain, we all need to know as much as possible about the potential effects for good or ill of AI.

The pace and potential of AI mean it is not something we can afford to ignore. It is perhaps the single most important area of decision-making business leaders will face over the next few years. The depth of a chief executive’s understanding could be the crucial differentiator between success and failure of firms in a fast-changing world.