Home Leadership The Robot CEO: A Thought Experiment on the Future of Leadership

The Robot CEO: A Thought Experiment on the Future of Leadership

by Guest Writter
Owen Shapiro, Author, Brand Shift: The Future of Brands and Marketing

Increasingly sophisticated robotics, artificial intelligence, and other technological marvels have already displaced many jobs once done by people—but could an intelligent robot one day take over the CEO’s job?

The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Consider:

The march of automation is being driven by productivity gains achieved by replacing people with machines that can do the jobs better and faster, without the need for sick leave, vacations, or a health plan. Until now, most of the jobs eliminated by automation have been lower-level jobs in manufacturing, production, and data processing, but as the technology improves, many clerical and administrative jobs will also be rendered obsolete. Ultimately, any job function that can be done better and more productively by a machine will be, because that is the law of the marketplace.

CEOs like to think of themselves as visionaries who embody the heart and soul of a company. They also like to think of themselves as unique and, as humans, capable of thinking in ways that a machine can’t.

That may soon change, however.

One of the most underestimated technological forces evolving today is the convergence of Big Data, networked supercomputers, artificial intelligence, and humanity-wide connectivity. In the not-too-distant future, this confluence of increasingly sophisticated technologies will operate like a kind of super-brain capable of analyzing and processing information at speeds and in quantities that will dwarf what any human can do. Individual computers connected to it could do something very close to “thinking,” because they would be programmed to teach themselves things like logical reasoning and creative problem-solving—things that could once only be accomplished by the human brain.

Now, imagine what might happen if you, a highly respected CEO, were pitted in competition with such a machine? You might work tirelessly all day, but eventually you would have to sleep. Unfortunately, while you are at home resting your weary brain, your competition is churning through the day’s data, scanning the commodities and futures markets, analyzing the global political situation, monitoring the Internet for competitive threats, assessing the productivity of each and every employee, modeling the implications of every conceivable management decision, strategy, or tactic, and projecting outcomes based on a quantum synthesis of several zetabytes of internal and external data. In the morning, while you are eating breakfast and reading the paper, your competition is “reading” every news feed in the world, in every language, and isn’t the least bit tired.

In fact, the job of CEO may be better suited to a computer than many other jobs in a company. Most experts agree there will still be plenty of jobs for people who program and maintain the technology in an era of increased automation, but most CEOs don’t—and can’t—do that. The “human touch” is still important too, of course, but with fewer employees to manage, the skill of motivating and leading people may not be quite as important in the future, either.

CEOs are strategists and thinkers; they are paid to serve the best interests of the company and its shareholders. But if a networked supercomputer linked to the intelligence of a billion other supercomputers could strategize and “think” in a way that boosted productivity and shareholder value better than you—what then?

It might be a few decades before anyone has to take such a threat seriously—but it might come sooner than you think. Fewer and fewer decisions these days are made by anyone without the aid of machine-crunched analytics. Computers like IBM’s Watson are already “inventing” recipes for chefs and recommending “creative” solutions to other business problems. How long will it be before you start consulting an artificially intelligent robot for advice on corporate strategy? How long after that will you start doing what it tells you to do?

And how long after that will you be out of a job?


About the Author

Owen Shapiro is the author of Brand Shift: The Future of Brands and Marketing. Shapiro is a market researcher, strategist and speaker and spent more than 30 years in customer insights and market strategy. He has a career-long interest in helping launch innovative start-up companies, several of which have become well-known brands, including Staples, PetSmart, Sports Authority, Ulta and Five Below.

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