To no one’s surprise, an unbridled AI-led future is not likely to be the laissez-faire utopia Marc Andreesen and his hordes of so-called “techno optimists” make it out to be. Creating an ethical AI future will require ethical executives willing to make hard choices for their companies, themselves and their employees.
Whether you love it or fear it, want it or despise it, AI and its ability to transform the modern economy is very real. It is not an exaggeration to observe that AI tools like ChatGPT literally grow in power with every passing hour, and each step forward makes their functionality more all-encompassing.
According to Andreesen’s telling, it is only through the unregulated development of AI that humans can tap into the infinite power of the technology to create a world “close enough” to utopia. But mixing laissez-faire regulatory approaches with one of the most high-impact technologies in the history of humankind seems naively optimistic.
The recent Hollywood strikes demonstrate just how fast AI’s impacts are coming at us. Key to both the actors and writers’ strike were guarantees about how AI could and could not be used in the future even in the most humanistic and creative of endeavors. The longest actors’ strike in the union’s history was hung up on a key point regarding the use of AI likenesses of actors: Studios wanted the right to use, in perpetuity, an AI version of any actor after just a single day’s work. They could use the likeness to populate future background scenes and potentially much more, cutting off thousands of jobs and dramatically changing the workforce and landscape of Hollywood.
Thanks to the power of their union, the jobs of actors are safe from AI — for now. For most everyone else, the impending cliff of AI still awaits. Which industries are most heavily impacted by AI remains to be seen, but in a recent survey by edX, 49% of C-Suite executives said that the skills that exist in their current workforce won’t be relevant by 2025.
That statistic is difficult to interpret exactly, but if it even hints that half of the American workforce has just two years before their jobs skills are worthless, the entire global economy is going to be in deep trouble.
In this ephemeral “before-time” — before AI more regularly becomes a part of the day-to-day life of the majority of Americans, before it further disrupts the U.S. economy — executives have a degree of freedom to choose how they adopt AI.
If driven by fear, it will be a rapid race to the bottom. Companies can lay off scores of employees and replace them with AI in an attempt to create an arbitrage dynamic, improving profit margins only until the rest of their competitors catch up. The economy will suffer, and employees of all economic strata will take the brunt of the blow.
And there may already be some level of inevitability here. Like phone or elevator operators before automation, there are bound to be certain jobs that will be made obsolete by AI. Other jobs will transform; the time-saving effectiveness of AI tools for certain coding jobs, for example, will push those roles in new directions with new freedoms and new possibilities.
Executives that don’t take the time to explore AI and its potential impacts on their company are kidding themselves, putting not only their business, but their employees — and themselves — at a massive disadvantage. It’s simply not possible to pretend AI’s going to go away.
There is a viable, if not superior, alternative to fear-driven decision making. That is one of intelligent empathy. AI will impact everyone — in the same edX survey referenced above, 49% of executives also thought that they could be replaced by AI. By leading with empathy, executives can acknowledge that yes, this powerful technology is a looming menace that could threaten all of our jobs – but, by working together, companies and their stakeholders can figure out how best to adapt. Working together gives them a better advantage than going it alone.
Even if this doesn’t resonate with you as an executive — if you define yourself as a free market capitalist through and through — it’s still true that for the vast majority of companies, maximizing the value and power of AI will come from collaboration.
Whether it’s because you’re able to create something greater than the sum of its parts — people forget that Uber started simply as a series of well designed APIs that integrated existing tools into one cohesive app — or because you’re able to utilize the creativity of your team to leverage AI in new ways, collaboration with your team provides a greater surface area for experimentation, and multiple perspectives from which to assess the impact, enabling you to move more quickly and creatively.
It is best to start these efforts with a frank and open dialogue – being forthright about the risk and impact of AI, and how the organization intends to address it. A part of that conversation needs to address the human component, your goals and objectives to help ensure that individuals, and the organization as a whole, thrive as a result of the incorporation of these new technologies.
If you fail to start with conversation, and jump right into implementation — perhaps new incentivization policies for the adoption of AI — it will very likely backfire, instilling fear and anxiety as employees perceive the program as a lazy way to find AI that replaces their jobs.
At my own tech company, we initiated an ongoing dialogue across the company to discuss the changes we’re seeing as a result of AI, and how we adapt to them. These conversations, while perhaps not possible for all organizations, provided the foundation for us to adopt other programs that enable us to incorporate and leverage AI throughout the company.
Rather than eliminating roles, creating this culture of discovery helps to push the company and its employees to new heights. Think of web developers when database driven CMSes (Content Management Systems) came online; rather than wiping out the jobs of developers by enabling customers to make changes to websites themselves, it freed developers from the drudgery of mundane edits and opened them up to more creativity and discovery.
Similarly, by creating efficiencies with AI, an organization can unlock entirely new or underappreciated skills within its workforce – and what companies do today will shape their culture for years to come.
Cut-and-run CEOs may find themselves without a sustainable workforce in the long-term. But business leaders that can create an empathetic path that embraces change while prioritizing employee well being, will build teams that can shape a more prosperous, humane future.