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The age of AI – What role for the human brain?

AI and digital technologies have the capability to change the human condition in profound ways. They are, arguably, the most powerful technologies yet invented by human beings. This blog looks at the disruptions AI can bring and what can be done to deal with them. Whatever actions we consider, whether in business or society, we find that they depend on humans using their unique capability. That is, with AI, we depend on human brains more than ever.

AI and the human condition

AI is set to disrupt jobs, organisations, the economy and societies. It is arguably the most powerful technology yet invented by human beings. It is powerful not in the way that, say, an H bomb is powerful. AI does not threaten to destroy life on Earth in a fiery cataclysm. No, it is powerful in the sense that it will change the human condition deeply and irrevocably, in ways that are difficult to fathom because we are just at the beginning of the AI revolution. The biggest challenge for human brains will be to guide AI towards enhancing the human condition. While it is difficult (and not the topic for this blog) to specify what ‘enhancing the human condition’ means, it is much easier to specify what ‘not enhancing the human condition’ might entail.

But let’s come back to the here and now and consider a common situation associated with AI and communication technologies.

Disruption, change and transformation

A successful organisation sees its profitability and market share being eroded rapidly from a new, nimble high-tech startup, perhaps using AI. This is a classic and common case of disruption. What is the threatened organisation to do? The situation may be ‘classic and common’ but that does not mean that the response is in any way easy to define and execute. Quite the contrary. We know that the response involves a large dose of change and transformation, two activities that are difficult to execute successfully, even when one knows what should be changed and what transformed. The evidence for this is overwhelming. Just last month, as example, McKinsey reported the long odds of success.

A chain of human dependencies

What is the organisation under threat to do? Here are some of the obvious steps it might consider:

  • Define a new business model

  • Enter new markets

  • Develop new products or services

  • Define a new strategy

  • Define related objectives and tasks

  • Acquire new skills and capability

Each of these steps depends on human beings investigating, evaluating, creating, judging, collaborating, motivating, influencing, making decisions, etc. In short it involves human beings using their brains to do things that, so far, only human beings are able to do. And, as seen above, this is a tall order.

With AI – we depend on human brains more than ever

AI may be able to provide some assistance in the background to solve the challenges above. But the technology, as it presently stands and as we understand its near and medium-term potential, cannot solve these problems for organisations and managers. The conclusion is inescapable:

  • Human brains and human capability will remain essential in dealing with the challenges brought about by new technology. That is, we cannot rely on a technology to solve the challenges brought about by its existence. If this were possible, it, indeed, would be a remarkable case of a technology ‘lifting itself up by its bootstraps’!

  • Becoming better at change and transformation is a human and organisational problem, not a technological problem. Improving the odds of success means framing change in new ways that engage human potential more creatively than at present. This is an enormous organisational, cultural and personal challenge about which AI has presently little or nothing to offer.

The wheel spins faster – Should we set a direction?

This brief and limited analysis in fact does not do justice to the challenge. This is because change and disruption happen at an accelerating pace, with no sign of it slowing down.

This is perhaps where we can return to the first paragraph of this blog. AI needs to be shaped and guided so that it enhances human organisations and human lives. A first step is to find ways to control the disruptions it causes. This does not mean that disruption is, by itself, bad. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made for ‘creative destruction’. However, destruction on a very large scale, without considering or controlling its impact on the human condition and its future, that is on lives, society, organisations, jobs, the economy, does not make much sense. In short, where do we want to go with AI and new technology. How do we want it to transform our societies and lives? This is surely a question that will come to intrude in the debate in years to come. This is a challenge for human brains.

Paul Guignard, Ph.D. Founder and director, Capability Institute

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