4 key insights about AI from a futurist
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a 3-part series offering insights into artificial intelligence and the future of business distilled from a presentation to Vistage members earlier this year.
Our latest research showed that leaders of small and midsize businesses are divided on how they approach artificial intelligence in their business; 33% still are not formally using or testing AI. But I promise you, your employees are.
Ross Hartmann, CEO of consulting firm Kiingo AI, who shared his insights during our expert roundtable on navigating AI for CEOs, stated that 69% of workers are hesitant to inform their managers about their use of AI, fearing that they may be replaced.
To shed some light on the topic of AI, Michael Rogers, a futurist who just completed a residency with The New York Times, spoke at a recent Vistage event and shared his stories and insights with small and midsize business leaders like yourself.
Below is a recap of his insights for leaders working to understand, embrace and master AI.
More in this series
1. The COVID-19 pandemic jumpstarted world virtualization.
The pandemic brought about one of the biggest changes in our lives: the virtualization of the world, according to Rogers.
Rogers notes that “one of the most significant outcomes of the pandemic is that everyone in the United States over 40 now knows how to unmute themselves on Zoom.” This breakthrough has made video conferencing a part of everyday life for everyone.
However, there are still limitations. Telepresent actions, such as executives controlling robots remotely on factory floors, didn’t catch on.
But the technology is advancing, Rogers says, explaining that screens are getting bigger and cheaper to make. Cameras are now being placed in the middle of monitors, and soon, ambient telepresence will allow offices in different locations to connect via large, wall-sized monitors.
For instance, Rogers references a software company with offices in Palo Alto, California, and Portland, Oregon. The company painted the break rooms in each office identically and added the same furniture along with a wall-sized monitor, so it looked like one room that just extended. This is a great segue to his second point — the necessity of an office.
2. We’ll still need the office.
Collaboration is a skill that is unique to humans, and AI researchers have yet to figure out how to get two AI entities to collaborate and create the same kind of exponential growth of ideas that some humans in a room with a whiteboard can produce, says Rogers.
Companies will still need offices for collaboration and, more importantly, building culture. Rogers is more concerned about losing culture than productivity with working from home.
He cites an article in the Harvard Business Review that suggests companies must create “digital campfires” where people in both the office and online can come together. The idea is to have good conversations around the virtual campfire, just like in-person conversations around a real campfire.
To make workspaces more flexible, Rogers notes that offices can be reconfigured for various purposes that will serve many needs. He cites a Google experiment in Mountain View, California, where office space can be changed from cubicles to conference rooms depending on the need.
Offices will also need to move into new and unconventional spaces, especially around large cities. This includes “fractional workspaces” near the suburbs of large cities where teams can meet to collaborate rather than a central location for an entire company’s workforce.
Commercial real estate developers have begun to embrace a “pop-up” concept of repurposing office space. Rogers explains that there is a website that functions like Airbnb for pop-up spaces, where hundreds of spaces can be reconfigured and businesses can rent them for as many days as they need.
In response to the commercial real estate market bottoming up during the pandemic, companies are reimaging using office space for warehousing, building “ghost kitchens” where restaurateurs can rent the kitchen, and even hosting full-on pop-up restaurants.
“This whole fungibility of office spaces, the moving things out of the edifice, is important,” Rogers says.
3. AI will become part of your organization.
In November 2022, ChatGPT 3.0 was launched with much anticipation, but after a few weeks, people began to see the output of early adopters and realized that ChatGPT was not just another AI assistant like Siri, but something more advanced.
Rogers points out that this technology has been around for decades, but only recently has it progressed to a point where a computer can engage in “deep learning,” sorting through incoming data, classifying it, and then using it as information. That’s how generative AI like ChatGPT translates language and answers questions, and at some point, it could replace workers.
Rogers says that customer service representatives are among the first jobs that could be threatened by AI, citing McDonald’s as an example, where they tested language recognition and verbalization to automate their drive-through ordering system. They managed to increase accuracy to about 80%, but it was not sufficient, as McDonald’s decided to pull it off the market.
AI is already moving into white-collar jobs. One example Rogers shared was the legal industry, where it has become useful by automating some of the tasks typically assigned to first- and second-year associates, in particular discovery — sorting through potential evidence to find key elements to take to trial.
In fact, during the federal government’s 2010 case against energy company Enron, AI was used to sort through 500,000 emails during discovery, finding patterns in grammar that led to Enron’s accounting fraud.
Rogers concludes that AI has both advantages and disadvantages, and it’s important to recognize that people have worked with, and against, this technology for decades. However, there is a growing concern that AI could replace human workers in various industries.
4. Robotics will experience an overflow effect from AI.
The field of robotics has been facing two major challenges, one being vision, and the other, the ability to handle physical objects delicately without damaging them, says Rogers.
However, with the advancements in AI technology, these challenges are being addressed. Robots are now equipped with improved vision capabilities and are being designed to handle objects with greater care, allowing for a host of new robotic applications.
For instance, a Silicon Valley company called Concept has developed a robot that can make burgers from scratch. The robot can cut tomatoes and lettuce and grind custom blends of hamburger meat for customers.
“It earned four and a half stars on Yelp in San Francisco, which is like impossible since everyone in San Francisco knows everything about food, and it’s $6,” he says. “So all of the fast food companies now are working on various forms of hamburger and grill robots using the vision and the tactility that I talked about.”
Other companies are also exploring the use of robots in their businesses, says Rogers. Retail stores have been trialing robots for knife sharpening and nail painting.
Europe, in particular, has made significant progress in the automation of agriculture, with robotic dairy farms and raspberry harvesting robots being some examples. Although these robots may not be as fast as humans, they can work round the clock, using infrared technology to work at night.
AI presents a growing number of unique challenges and opportunities, Rogers says, and it will require trial and error to determine the most effective ways to utilize it in the coming decades.
“It’s like sailing against the wind,” he explains. “You have to tack back and forth because the technology isn’t yet fully developed, it can be too expensive, your employees haven’t trained on it, and you may still have investments to make in existing technology. However, you can make incremental decisions along the way to gradually move toward the future.”