Stephen Hawking

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Professor Stephen Hawking believes artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.  Others are less pessimistic. Rollo Carpenter, creator of Cleverbot, says: “I believe we will remain in charge of the technology for a decently long time and the potential of it to solve many of the world problems will be realised”.

My own view tends more towards Mr Carpenter’s, but I also don’t believe that CEOs or management teams have really understood the impact of software that “solves world problems”. And particularly not the pace at which this is happening. We could be talking just five years for many businesses to be unrecognisable – lawyers, accountants, manufacturers, care homes and those in logistics, to name but a few.

Here I set out what I see as your future and how boards should manage this rapidly changing landscape.

1. Is artificial intelligence really that relevant to our business?

Yes, yes, yes. Whatever business you are in.

In a lifetime of working in technology I’ve been able to see the future happening – often when boards have not. I shocked the BT Board in 1987 by saying it would not be long before a million people in the UK had mobile phones. Ten years later I was at the helm of UUNET International and knew that the thing called the Internet, that we were building, would change the world.

And now we are at one of those moments again, when the world as we know it is beginning to shift dramatically.

Let’s imagine you go to sleep on December 31st 2014 and wake up on January 1st knowing twice as much as when you went to sleep, have twice as much energy and stamina and know that next New Year’s day the process will happen again and again and again.

How would that feel? Awesome? Exciting – but also concerning? What will be the impact on your body – will you burn out quicker, can your brain even imagine what you can now do that you couldn’t before?

That is exactly what’s happening to the computing power that surrounds us.

When I started working, computers were huge boxes housed in special rooms. Now I hold something with far more power and access to far more knowledge in the palm of my hand. And the process is getting faster and the intelligence greater with every passing year.

Experts differ as to when machines will become as intelligent as humans, but they pretty much all agree that it will happen before the end of this century (that’s only 85 years away – in the lifetime of my grandson Sam).

2. Which activities will be done by computers and robots?

artificial intelligence

If I had asked you ten years ago what human activities could never be done by a computer you might have mentioned car driving or cancer diagnosis as examples. Yet both of these can now be done more successfully and more safely by computers.

Unlike humans, computers don’t sleep and don’t need time off. Yes, they do sometimes fail, mostly due to poor input by the humans, though they are learning to correct these problems themselves.

So the future is happening again, happening all around us and as usual when that happens those who understand and adapt will survive and thrive.

3. Is artificial intelligence a threat to your business?

If you lead a business today then you need to start thinking and thinking hard about how your business will plan its way to the future.

If you think how the internet has changed the way business is done – you’ve seen nothing yet.

You may hope these changes will only happen after you retire but I would suggest that unless you are planning on retiring next year and leaving for another planet, you start to take the future very seriously. If you have employees and children and grandchildren then you should take it very seriously indeed.

Almost all companies nowadays do a very good job of looking at risk. Boards debate the top ten risks to their strategy, they make sensible plans, they cover contingencies, and they do a great job for the company and its shareholders as it is today.

But most strategies are incremental, based on what you know now. Few boards have the technology knowledge or skills to think the unthinkable.

Let’s think about a few examples

  • You are a one of a small number of global professional firms; you employ thousands of smart lawyers, accountants, or architects.   The bulk of your profit is made by juniors who process paper. Machines can already do most of those jobs faster and better. What will your firm look like if in five years you only need a fraction of those number and paper crunchers?
  • You run a global logistics company, do you need drivers any more when machines can drive your trucks and even less when goods can be printed by smart printers near the point of consumption?
  • You run an agency that supplies nurses, but machines do a better job of monitoring patients’ health and robots are better at delivering care.

Over the next few months I will be meeting chief execs and boards to discuss how they see the impact of technology, what they are struggling with and what processes we can develop to find ways to adapt and be profitable. The things that I will be discussing will include:

  • How do Boards get ‘wild card’ technologists in a room to understand what the future could look like and where the threats and opportunities are?
  • How do you get new types of directors onto your board – who are they, where do you find them?
  • How do you change the Board’s view of technology so that it is central to what the Board considers and not just for the IT department?
  • How do you implement this into your strategy?

I plan to produce a report pulling these findings and thinking together.

I will be sharing what I find through future blogs and would love to hear your views to contribute to the bigger picture – do leave a comment below, contact me on Twitter or email me

And if you think I have lost the plot – well, I’d like to hear your views on that too!