Is AI Coming for the C-Suite?


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AI across the C-suite — Artificial intelligence will remove the human touch from many significant roles but can it replace the hands that steer the ship?


Artificial intelligence will be the defining disruption of our age. In a time characterized by so many seismic shifts, this one is the very apex. What executive wouldn’t be a little excited by the potential of that? Less than a year since ChatGPT launched in public beta, it’s already obvious that generative AI — LLMs (Large Language Models) in particular — will have a monumental effect on the future of work. The boon to productivity is undeniable and the limits of its applications seem … well … limitless. But along with the limitless possibilities is the possibility that this technology may take more from us than we get back in return. AI’s endless potential also holds the potential for things to end — even for those of us who are leading the way. What seems inconceivable today — the supplanting of executive leaders by smart tech — is already foreshadowed in the fates of those a few rungs down the ladder from us, and a few rungs down the ladder from them, and so on, and so on. We’re protected now. But that could change as quickly as the recommendation engine on TikTok. What we do now might well define the terms of our own futures in this brave new world. If we aren’t able to protect and steward our own people through these uncertain times, we could soon find ourselves with no one left to lead. And with no person left to lead, what need is there for a leader? Do the chief executives of an automated organization need to be human? Is AI coming for the C-suite?


Already, Alphabet, Meta and Microsoft (through its investment in OpenAI) are deploying incredibly advanced AI across their enterprise offerings. Meanwhile, millions of smaller organizations are sprouting up to launch all manner of AI-governed applications, some piggybacking on Big Tech APIs and some using their own proprietary LLMs. It’s a generative AI gold rush. Though some have framed it as more of a weapons race. For all the benefits offered by this new technology — all the as-yet-unrealized applications — the risks are considerable. Ignoring for now the doomerism coming from a not-inconsequential swath of the machine-learning community, let’s acknowledge that people will be hurt by these developments. Many occupations we used to consider the exclusive domain of highly trained human practitioners are already showing signs of AI attrition. Programmers — that most highly paid, unassailable, superclass of skilled workers — are presiding over the birth of systems that will soon be able to outperform and outpace them.
READ ‘LEANING INTO AN EARLY SUCCESSION PLAN — Why great executive leaders are always looking for the best person to replace them
For now, these systems are beneficial tools, supplementing human efforts. But they learn quickly and they are infinitely replicable. Like weavers watching a mechanical loom steam away, programmers are witnessing the dawn of their eventual sunsetting. In January and February 2023 alone, there were 120,000 tech layoffs, with Alphabet accounting for 10% of those lost jobs. Other roles will likely fall to similar fates. Data scientists, systems engineers, traders (even quants), designers, teachers — in fact, any occupation based around information and the generation of something from that information — will be at risk of being sidelined or devalued in this new world. The tech industry has shed nearly half a million workers over the past year and a half, the most since the dot-com crash two decades ago. As deployable AI is ramped up to cover operational shortfalls, how many of those workers will be able to find new placements? We have only an inkling of the change and upheaval that is coming for us. That we know it’s coming doesn’t seem to be much of a mitigating factor. In fact the opposite seems to be true. We seem to be in a race to embrace it.


The idea of artificial intelligence penetrating the highest echelons of corporate hierarchy might sound like something out of a dystopian novel, but Alibaba’s maverick founder, Jack Ma, thinks it’s more than plausible. He has painted a futuristic picture of a robot claiming the title of ‘Best CEO’ on the cover of Time magazine within the next three decades. According to a recent edX report, Ma isn’t the only top executive with silicon dreams. Nearly half of the whitepaper’s responding CEOs and C-suite executives believe AI could easily replace their roles, with 47% suggesting it might even be beneficial. This sentiment isn’t without real world examples. NetDragon Websoft, a Hong Kong-based online gaming firm, appointed the first AI-powered virtual robot as CEO of its flagship subsidiary in 2022. In less than six months, Tang Yu — as the AI-CEO is called — led her company to outperform the Hong Kong stock market, increased the stock price by 10% and pushed the company’s valuation above $1 billion. Since then, a handful of other companies have deployed their own AI-CEOs. And it’s not just the tech visionaries who are enamored with the idea of AI leadership. It appears that a sizeable chunk of the broader workforce shares this sentiment too. A 2019 survey unveiled a striking fact: 30% of workers are open to the idea of their CEO being replaced by a robot. A different survey presented an even more dramatic revelation, with 40% of respondents opining that the role of CEOs should be fully automated. Some of this may have more to do with the perceived inapproachability of leadership than it does with the actual appeal of smart tech. But it’s telling nonetheless. As stakeholders are increasingly made to interact with LLMs, there’s a not insignificant likelihood that the numbers reflected in those surveys will start to creep up. And, with employees already working closely with and taking direction from AI, stockholders and boards may start to see the upsides of automating executive roles. CEO pay has gone up 1,460% in the past 45 years, while the average worker pay has only gone up 18%. If any decision can be made by purpose-built AI, why not the most expensive ones? While it may seem like we’re talking about a distant sci-fi future, these statistics mark an important shift in perception towards leadership and automation. The traditionally sacrosanct C-suite may not be as invulnerable to technological encroachment as it once was. This evolution in thought forces us to ponder — will the corner office of the future be occupied by silicon brains and code, instead of flesh and blood leaders? If that’s a possibility we find unappealing, what are we doing to stop it? If things keep developing as they have been, Jack Ma’s “Best CEO” timeline may prove to be a conservative one.


But this isn’t a foregone conclusion. It’s a cautionary tale. One that we are in an ideal place to rewrite. The thing that can be too easily missed in all the buzz around the astounding capabilities of AI is what it’s not actually capable of — leading. Being a chief executive is about so much more than generating a predictable set of reactions to a definable set of parameters and analytics. If stakeholders and stockholders have started to forget this, then perhaps we’ve been focusing them on the wrong things or, at the very least, making too much of one set of replicable qualities and not enough of the irreducible ones. People may need to be reminded that business leaders go beyond what a predictive model can produce. That means going the extra mile to connect with stakeholders, proving that the stewardship of our organizations includes championing them and improving their experiences. And it means showing shareholders that the soft skills C-suite leaders bring offer more value than what even the smartest tech can do for them. The way forward for top executives is to focus on those important leadership qualities AI and machine learning will never be able to replicate. But we can’t be so shortsighted to think that this only applies to us. Any argument that focuses on AI tools replacing — rather than augmenting — people is one more domino falling in a succession of attitudinal changes that eventually ends with our own sidelining. Using AI does not have to mean being used by AI but it could too easily wind up that way. We need to stop trying to out-machine the machines. There is a path forward for responsible AI use, but not so much time before the prerogative to steer it is taken away from us. The time to start paving an ethical way forward is now. If any group of people is best positioned to have an influence on the direction AI adoption and policy goes, it’s those of us in the boardrooms and corner offices of the world. We can lead the way forward by deploying a humanistic approach to AI usage, by being measured in how AI initiatives become part of our operations, by welcoming red team thinking, by encouraging international policy discussions, and by not being tempted to allow short-term rewards to overshadow long-term ramifications. In so doing, we demonstrate categorically what sets us apart, and what it really takes to helm an organization. If we can achieve this, the C-suite needn’t worry.