As the policy leaders of the world gather at the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland to ponder world progress (including Gartner’s very own Peter Sondergaard), there will be talk of AI and automation interspersed with presentations on the Digital Economy and In Technology We Trust?. Google chief exec Sundar Pichai will talk about AI. Erik Brynjolfsson will talk about How We Can Fix Our Productivity Crisis.
That’s great because there are real issues to talk about; potential problems on the horizon if this powerful new technology is not harnessed appropriately. AI, robots, and automation (the triumverate I call AIRA) can cause unknown amounts of harm directly (through their actions) as well as indirectly (through their impacts on the workforce).
But don’t look to Davos to save us from the Robo-pocolypse.
Davos is about economics (more specifically economic policy) and pan global solutions to the challenges ahead. But as we’ve seen with other global issues with unevenly dispersed future impacts, it can be extremely difficult to get consensus on how to act. And like those other global issues, such as climate change, there are “free rider” situations. If all countries do not act as one it permits the outliers to benefit disproportionately from spewing carbon or weaponizing AI.
Well, Davos isn’t my crowd anyways. My private jet is in the garage for a new muffler and my invitation must have wound up in the spam folder along with my Pottery Barn 15% off coupon.
My crowd is the businesses that are looking at using AIRA and wondering how to do it most effectively. And I think business leaders and IT leaders can do more good in the short term and stave off long term risks by taking responsible actions within their own organizations. I wrote in my document “To Avoid Working for Robots, Make Robots Work For You” that change starts from within each organization. And it needs to start today, long before dystopian predictions of vast technological unemployment come true. Indeed, when adoption of advanced automation is done with care and consideration, these dire predictions may not come to pass for many years — if ever. How, when and where automation is used in their companies is within the scope of business and technology leaders, and that is where they need to focus their attention.
Business and IT leaders may decide to involve themselves in places like Davos to provide a much-needed business perspective on enabling continuous improvement of the human condition in an equitable manner. But back in the corner office, I think their focus needs to be on how to ride the wave of automation in a way that is best for their organizations.This was a controversial statement among my peers and we didn’t come to agreement on whether looking up at the big picture was too distracting from the work that needs to happen within their organizations. But as policy leaders are meeting I think it only prudent to point out how much can be done within organizations and how the cumulative effect of those actions may be a significant part of the answer the policy makers are searching for.
Building organizational competency around AIRA can be accomplished in a decentralized manner, from the bottom-up. Each organization can benefit in the short run, while benefits to society accrue over time, as more organizations maintain staffing levels, increase employee engagement, and improve products and services.
So it is only prudent for business and IT leaders to make smart changes that help them in the short run, while positioning for the long run. I have spoken about the application of AI in a manner more like the humans it will work with than the technology that it is — an approach informed by HR as well as IT. No other technology has the ability to learn and perform higher-order functions in the way that advanced automation can. HR has uniquely adapted its processes to handle the allocation of clever resources than can, and should, grow in scope and abilities over time, exactly the capabilities needed for successful deployment of AIRA.
To those business and IT leaders sitting at home like me, the worst thing you could do is wait for coordinated action on Universal Basic Income (UBI) or AI usage guidelines or economic policy statements. Get back to work and make sure you are doing everything you can in your organizations to wisely and gradually adopt AI, robotics, and automation in a way that helps your customers and employees. We can shore this up one company at a time while waiting for the world leaders to come to agreement on what to do next.
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