Move Over — Watson Needs a Seat in the Boardroom

The term “artificial intelligence” conjures images of Watson, IBM’s mastermind computer, defeating the world’s top Jeopardy! players in 2011. Or, going a little farther back, perhaps you remember the matchup between IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue and world chess champion Gary Kasparov. Kasparov won the first match in 1996 but the computer, with an assist from its human programmers, took the rematch in 1997.

Setting computers in competition with brilliant humans underscores the potential of machines to approach or even surpass our thinking power. And for a long time it has frightened us. HAL, anyone?

But the power of artificial intelligence to extend and improve upon human thinking also offers exciting opportunities, many of which are already being implemented. From the voice-recognition technology that allows call centers to route your question to the right place, to the robots widely used in manufacturing, to computer programs that help doctors interpret medical imaging, artificial intelligence is already impacting many aspects of our lives.

You may already, in fact, be using artificial intelligence in your workplace to improve the effectiveness or even in some cases to replace certain employee functions — especially on the front lines.

Artificial intelligence, which gives robots the ability to react to situations through pattern recognition and machine learning algorithms, is playing an ever-expanding role in both repetitive front-line functions and in highly skilled jobs where judgment is the result of lots of experience. For example, legal document discovery is rapidly becoming the domain of smart machines rather than lawyers and paralegals.

Which raises the question: how high in your organizational structure can or should artificial intelligence be used? Could artificial intelligence replace management or executive functions? Is it time to make room for WATSON in the boardroom?

Rik Kirkland, a senior editor at the business consulting firm McKinsey, posed just that question to leading business professors, entrepreneurs and a data scientist earlier this year. His report from those conversations suggests that while senior executives are not likely to be replaced by computers any time soon, those who want to continue to compete effectively should look closely at how computers can enhance and improve upon what they do — even in areas where they feel their experience and instincts are their own greatest contribution.

“The role of a senior manager in a deeply data-driven world is going to shift,” Andrew McAfee, co-author of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies told Kirkland. “I think the job is going to be to figure out, ‘Where do I actually add value and where should I get out of the way and go where the data take me?’ That’s going to mean a very deep rethinking of the idea of the managerial ‘gut,’ or intuition.”

Rather than replacing humans, said Anthony Goldbloom, founder and CEO of crowdsourcing startup Kaggle, smarter machines are changing the kinds of expertise that companies should value. Analysis is becoming more important than domain expertise. Leaders, he said, need to recognize key problems and identify useful data sets. After that, “the best thing you can possibly do is to get rid of the domain expert who comes with preconceptions about what are the interesting correlations or relationships in the data and to bring in somebody who’s really good at drawing signals out of data.”

While many uniquely human abilities, such as negotiating effectively and reading social situations, will continue to be important in managerial roles, managers and executives in coming years will begin to see their vaunted instincts eclipsed by the data-crunching and pattern-recognition abilities of computers. The best managers will implement these functions within their organizations in order to outstrip the competition.

Google, for instance, uses data analytics in hiring, according to data scientist Jeremy Howard. Google’s “human performance analytics group” correlates past responses to interview questions during the hiring process with employee performance data and uses that information to guide the interviewing and hiring process going forward. Humans are still involved, and their management of this process is key. Artificial intelligence is just making them better at what they do.

Still, machines and computers can’t empathize, and are not much good at providing inspiration. And creativity, by most accounts, is still the province of humans — and will continue to be something companies should value. “The idea that the rewards of most jobs and people will be based on their ability to think creatively,” said Goldbloom, “is probably right.”

Artificial intelligence is the kind of tool that can change everything — but only for those who apply strategic thinking, creativity and leadership to the process of harnessing it to make their company more competitive. It may not be time to make room for WATSON in the boardroom — but “he” needs to be included in the conversation.