Are You Ready for a RoboCEO?

Here’s a disturbing thought: A RoboCEO powered by artificial intelligence — possibly based on IBM’s Watson — could be running some companies within the next decade. Not every company will warm to the idea, to be sure, but it’s conceivable that the practice could begin.

Are you ready to work for a RoboCEO? Though it seems farfetched, this idea has started to bubble to the surface, with leaders like Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma apparently taking it seriously.

As with computers, the Internet and other technological leaps, there’s quite a bit of both good and bad around artificial intelligence. How would working life be different under a RoboCEO? If we widen the focus, how might it impact our life — and, in fact, our society in general? Things will change, whether or not we are ready for a revolution.

Would a RoboCEO running on AI be unforgiving? In what ways might that be so? Who would be the judge if employees should have grievances against a RoboCEO?

AI software might be challenged to make some thorny judgments. Take this hypothetical problem from the automotive world: If an accident involving a self-driving car were inevitable, how would the AI decide between negative outcomes? If harm inevitably had to come to someone, how would the AI software choose?

Why consider appointing a RoboCEO? For starters, it wouldn’t need a multimillion-dollar salary and bonus package. Like RoboWorkers in general, the RoboCEO would never need rest, never get sick, never have to eat, go to the bathroom, take a Starbucks break. It would never take a vacation. It wouldn’t need healthcare, life insurance or retirement benefits, and it wouldn’t require a lavish working environment.

Still, the idea of spending one’s working life under the leadership of a RoboCEO could generate quite a bit of angst. There are plenty of good, bad and unknown potential consequences.

Who among us would be the best types to do well in this experimental setting? Or should RoboWorkers be the only employees who have to answer to a RoboCEO?

For Better and Worse

A RoboCEO likely would be more effective leading an army of RoboWorkers rather than humans. It more easily could change the company’s direction based on market shifts. It wouldn’t have to convene countless meetings with other executives and subordinates to win buy-in and bring everyone up to speed.

Instead, it simply could send new code over the Internet of Things to every RoboWorker in the company — and it could do so instantly. That would be much more efficient than today’s practice of educating and training human workers with their different capabilities and dispositions.

What about creativity, though? That would be missing. That means innovators like Steve Jobs might never have the opportunity to bring inventions like the iPhone to market. The same problem would apply to all sorts of enterprises. Ironically, it’s companies that grew from the vision of innovators — like Amazon, Google and Facebook — that are the very companies who seem to be driving the AI boom.

Is it even possible to have a company function with an all-robot workforce? That won’t happen overnight, for sure, but that’s the direction AI seems to be heading. Perhaps it will start with replacing line workers in auto factories or staff at fast-food restaurants. Then bit by bit, more and more human employees will be replaced by AI machines, until at some point we suddenly realize that everything has changed.

The AI train has left the station, so the issue now is how humans can maintain control. Some forward-thinking leaders already have sounded warnings about AI causing trouble in the future. Dire predictions don’t seem to slow the pace of progress, though. Yesterday we fretted about cameras everywhere, but today they are everywhere. They’re in the ceilings at practically every store. They’re on street corners. They seem to be everywhere, and it seems that privacy is gone.

This is the direction we are heading with AI, and it might not take long. Artificial intelligence is growing in importance and power. The question is, at what point will AI exceed our ability to control it? At what point will AI be self-sustaining? When we reach that point, will we ever be able to pull the plug again?

AI Battleground

There is a battle of CEOs over AI. Alibaba Jack Ma and Tesla CEO Elon Musk are on one side, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on the other.

They all make valid and interesting points — and they are all right. AI will bring new advancements in business technology. It also will invade our privacy and worse. It will help and hurt. It will make our lives better and worse. AI is both an opportunity and a concern.

The same is true of the Internet. It brings us instant access to information and lets us communicate in new ways. It lets us shop online and share rides. However, it also invades our privacy and exposes us to all sorts of serious threats. It exposes us to cybercriminals who might take our money, steal our personal data or worse.

Just as we won’t give up the Internet because of the problems it poses, we won’t give up AI. That means we must be smart as we enter this new world. We must take the threats AI poses seriously and protect ourselves. It will be a continuing battle.

It’s vital that humans remain in control. It’s important that we use AI to add to and not replace the human element. Otherwise, we may wake up one day and find that we’ve become enslaved by a RoboCEO.

Jeff Kagan

Jeff Kagan has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2010. His focus is on the wireless and telecom industries. He is an independent analyst, consultant and speaker. Email Jeff.

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