A red flag to CEOs: AI is great, but… what about people?

Leadership and technology

Years ago, when I was working at General Electric, during a global leadership meeting, I had the opportunity to meet the VP of Technology for the entire group, one of the major powerhouses at the time. Around that same period, my children were at the stage of seeking their own career paths. So, I took the opportunity to ask him about how he saw the professions of the future and what advice he would give to his own children.

Towards people

After a long pause, during which it seemed like he was deeply introspecting, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Steer your children toward working with people because in the future, there will be such an intense focus on technology that there will be a shortage of people who know how to deal with people, due to the challenges that technology itself will bring.”

I must confess, I was quite surprised to hear this from one of the most prestigious technology leaders of that time. However, after approximately 25 years since that statement, I see how his words were prophetic.

In any current source of CEO priorities or company agendas, the use of AI is at the top of all priorities. Interestingly, I haven’t seen the topic of people in a the top positions on that list.

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Certainly, technology will bring unimaginable benefits, not only in business but also in the global geopolitical landscape, as research in this area has received heavy investments in countries like China and Russia in the pursuit of technological advancement.

A recent McKinsey & Company study of 63 global companies showed that regenerative AI could add between $2.6 to $4.4 trillion in value in the coming decades.

Facing challenges

To face this reality, the challenge will be how leaders and individuals will confront these massive changes. We are only taking the first steps in these advancements, and we already see reports, like the one published in CEOWORLD Magazine, where OpenAI is on the list of the most hated companies in the U.S. in 2023. This is due to the elimination of 4,000 jobs in that country caused by AI and ChatGPT. Goldman & Sachs also released a report estimating that 300 million jobs will be eliminated globally.

In parallel with all this technology, the focus should be on how we prepare leaders and individuals for these transformations. It will be essential to empower them for rapid reorganizations while keeping morale and motivation high. Technology is indeed a phenomenon, but it will be people who implement it, not robots.

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Ethical discernment will become an essential competence because more than ever, challenges such as the potential invasion of people’s privacy, misuse of information, appropriation of competitors’ technologies, and many others will be faced.

One of the most discussed topics is the type of intelligence and decision-making processes used in autonomous cars. What could be great benefits of AI might become significant liabilities for companies, eroding their productivity with heavy losses in the courts.

Ethical principles

Professor Stuart Russell, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, makes important considerations in his book “Human Compatible – Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control” showing that machine and robot behavior will always be programmed according to the character of those who create them.

Thus, ethical principles, or the lack thereof, will truly shape our future.

We will need leaders who anticipate the changes that will occur and prepare people for new roles and sudden career transitions. Leaders who create mindsets and processes to ensure that people remain the greatest asset of companies, not just technology.

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Fast WIP

Now is a time for a united effort by professionals and academics to outline the profile of leaders for the approaching moment and train them. Theories based on the past will quickly become obsolete. It will be a pioneering experience where we will plan the future scenario and only then establish the necessary leadership profile. A very fast “work in process”.

Russell brings up a very suggestive phrase: “We need to become very good at being human.”

Furthermore, Russell quotes John Aoun, President of Northeastern University, who said that universities should be teaching “humanics,” a discipline that would bring “a better understanding of how the human mind works on cognitive and emotional levels…architects of life to help people plan their life path…enhancement of personal curiosity and resilience.”

Russell concludes with the final remark, “Without this overhaul, we risk an unsustainable level of socioeconomic disruption.”

Therefore, the sooner the focus on preparing people for the future arrives in corporations, rather than just focusing on technology, the greater the chances of successfully implementing these drastic transformations.

I can now see how accurate the advice from the VP of Technology years ago was. If he had written a book about it, he would have been a best-seller as a visionary of future scenarios.