Will artificial intelligence replace CEOs?

Discussion
Photo: Jack Ma – Wikipedia
Apr 26, 2017
George Anderson

Jack Ma, founder and chairman of Alibaba, is a big believer in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, even though he thinks the technologies will eventually eliminate the need for human chief executives over the course of the next several decades.

Speaking at a China Entrepreneur Club conference, Mr. Ma said AI is critical to helping organizations process the vast amounts of data being generated. He cautioned, however, that AI and robotics should be developed to complement humans in the workplace and not as a replacement.

Mr. Ma fears that in the coming decades, while advances in technology will provide the benefit of helping people live longer lives, it will simultaneously putting them out of work. This combination of factors will create “social conflicts” and “have an impact on all sorts of industries and walks of life.”

Alibaba’s chairman said that, within the next 10 to 20 years, people will have substantially more non-work time on their hands as the time spent on the job is cut to “less than four hours a day, maybe three days a week.”

He also said that it will not only be low- and mid-level workers who will be affected by technological advances.

“In 30 years, a robot will likely be on the cover of Time Magazine as the best CEO,” Mr. Ma said. Non-human CEOs will have the benefits of being able to make business decisions more quickly based on more and better data. Also, unlike human CEOs, they will not be swayed by petty emotions.

For those inclined to dismiss Mr. Ma’s predictions, he cautioned that many did so years ago when he spoke to audiences about the coming disruptive nature of the internet and e-commerce on traditional businesses.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How will artificial intelligence and robotics affect retail workplaces over the next several decades? Can you imagine a future in which technology will replace the need for human CEOs?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Knowing some CEOs today, I’d say a couple could be replaced by hand puppets, but that’s another topic."
"No, sorry, AI will never advance far enough to replace any critical decision making human."
"Not only will AI put a significant number of people out of work, but tax policy will have to evolve to move away from taxing only human work."

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19 Comments on "Will artificial intelligence replace CEOs?"


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Jon Polin
BrainTrust

The flip side of not being swayed by “petty emotions” is that emotions are a real part of life that will not be replaced by robots. As good as machines are at analyzing data and helping to make decisions, there are still humans involved in executing a plan and in buying the products and services that companies offer. Saying that a robot will be the best CEO in 30 years is a great headline but it will not happen.

Kim Garretson
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

One fast-emerging model for retail marketers is the use of AI (powered by IBM Watson) for planning marketing campaigns. A company called Equals3 has launched an AI marketing planning platform with IBM Watson that can reduce the time and labor to plan marketing campaigns from months with a large staff at the retailer and its agencies to a day or two with one staffer.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

And there are countless others using Watson and homegrown AI for marketing, store planning, assortment optimization, pricing, etc. You can’t argue with math that improves performance and reduces labor. Though as long as there are humans involved anywhere in the process there needs to be a supporting leadership and culture.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Knowing some CEOs today, I’d say a couple could be replaced by hand puppets, but that’s another topic. The great ones are great in part because of their exceptional ability to craft intelligent, strategic decisions based upon available information that their staffs can execute upon. If you simply look at that capability, I could be convinced that AI might be able to pull that off, as the technologies could be “fed” more and more data and learn as it consumes. AI is already positively affecting retail as we speak around the world, with Abof in India and others leveraging the technologies like natural language processing for their e-commerce business.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Not only will AI put a significant number of people out of work, but tax policy will have to evolve to move away from taxing only human work. It’s going to be untenable to have an idle class supported only by taxes on workers, not by taxes on workers and robots. The disruption we’ve seen in the auto industry, where robots are replacing human workers, is only the beginning.

Tom Erskine
BrainTrust
2 years 6 months ago

The evolution and adoption of AI and robotics in retail is going to happen in three stages:

  1. Automation — a wholesale replacement of repeatable, manual tasks across the entire supply chain (including in the store) over the next three to seven years.
  2. Decision-making — AI guides humans and provides the IQ to make better decisions.
  3. Emotional connection — AI develops EQ, and becomes “smart” enough to connect in a completely human way. Until this last step is accomplished, human leaders cannot be replaced.
Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Science fiction is well on its way to becoming a reality. AI and robotics will impact every aspect of human experience including retailing. AI has already surpassed human capabilities to analyze and interpret massive amounts of data and is well on its way to self-learning.

There is no question that Jack Ma is correct in his assertion that AI and robots represent a profound change for humanity (Elon Musk and other big brains are in agreement on this). Many corporations have already started using AI — in fact, it’s quickly becoming mainstream for the largest corporations. And while no one can argue with the benefits AI can/will confer on humanity, there’s also peril. As Ma said, “ … unlike human CEOs, they will not be swayed by petty emotions.” To me, it’s these “petty emotions” that make us human and a lack thereof should be cause for concern.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

AI is an interesting technology tool, but is hardly equivalent to making complex management decisions that require human interaction, empathy, sympathy and feelings. These emotions and feelings drive our ability to create, innovate and make us unique (and better as CEOs).

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

Artificial intelligence attempts to simulate human decision making with computer algorithms. As computers get faster and AI tools get better, AI will come closer to emulating human decision-making. Today’s AI is augmenting human decision-making for better results. If Jack is correct about AI replacing CEOs then his premise could be applied to all forms of decision-making, not just decisions made by CEOs.

I don’t see this happening as completely as Jack Ma does. CEOs will continue to use AI to help them in their decision-making. Humans continue to experiment and develop new ideas. It will be difficult for AI to maintain the pace of this human creativity. And CEOs make decisions involving people and emotions, things that computers will have a very hard time emulating.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust
Meaghan Brophy
Senior Retail Writer
2 years 6 months ago

Over the next several decades it’s very likely that AI will have the capability of replacing human CEOs. However, that doesn’t mean they should. Call me paranoid, but I can’t get comfortable with the idea of putting a robot in that position of power. Not to mention, what would the psychological impact be on human workers who report to a non-human? I agree with Mr. Ma that if many positions and employees are replaced with AI, it will cause “social conflicts.”

Ed Dunn
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

AI-driven corporations are not 30 years away, they are more like three years away. The first phase of AI will be “augmented” not “artificial” intelligence that complements humans in decision-making and processes.

There are several technologies in place:

  • Private cryptographic keys — Bots can create computerized secret keys to perform digital signatures that are legally binding since a corporation is a legal entity.
  • Distributed ledgers — several ledgers from accounting, articles of incorporation, stocks and bond assets and inventory assets can be verified by employee-shareholders. Bots can analyze the ledgers to optimize processes and maximize value.
  • Natural language — AI can now understand contractual terms as well as business rules in plain English as well as humans.

I’m aware of an AI-driven vending machine project where the employee-shareholders vote with their private key and their private key is their actual stock certificate proof of ownership. No CEO, no board of directors or executive team. Three to five years, not 30 years.

Sky Rota
BrainTrust
2 years 6 months ago

No disrespect Mr. Ma, but how many huge CEOs do you know? Because the ones I know are exactly like computers. So this line, “unlike human CEOs, they will not be swayed by petty emotions” is totally off base. Top CEOs are able to compartmentalize. They keep emotions separate from logic. I know this because my dad is one of those guys. He can take a million things on and not crumble, that is why he is able to run many companies. But you must have some human emotional nature even if it is the tiniest bit.

No robot is ever going to feel that it’s not right to lay off his faithful 77-year-old employee after working for him for 26 years because he knows that this is all he has to live for. No robot is going to have “Bring Your Child To Work Day.” No robot is going to buy the Girl Scout Cookies from their employees’ kids!

We will always need the human factor. 🙂

Sean Wargo
Guest
Put this one in the category of fun to think about, but not all that likely. It comes down to (and somewhat depends on) one’s definition of the primary function of a CEO or other position. For a CEO, one would think, this would center around leadership. Underneath this is a need for charisma, emotional intelligence, problem solving, creative thinking and a host of intangibles. Translating this into a set of algorithms which sort, weigh and interpret the relevant data is no small task. Even harder is translating this in an emotionally compelling way back out. The proof of the Herculean nature of it is the sheer fact that many humans don’t even do it very well. Sure machines can sometime exceed their human counterparts through their tireless ability to repeat a task with no fatigue or emotion, but this would seem to be more complicated. Then again, perhaps taking the emotional element out of being a CEO would improve performance? I guess we’ll one day see whether some of us would rather follow a… Read more »
Lee Kent
BrainTrust

AI and robotics are poised to take over many jobs in retail over the next several decades and some CEO jobs may be thrown in to boot. There is a lot we need to be thinking about here. But the thought leadership, passion and risk taking that a good CEO provides, those cannot easily be replaced by technology. In light of this, some CEOs may need to be stepping up their games.

For my 2 cents.

Tom Redd
Guest

Who picks the articles? AI and machine learning have many uses across retail — we all have heard or written enough about this topic. Almost time to toss it and talk about something new.

No, sorry, AI will never advance far enough to replace any critical decision making human. Chess and some marketing (basic performance based marketing decisions) can be handled by AI but not the illogical-at-times human relation-needed decisions. The learning and formula work of AI can only go so far at this time, and likely even in 2030. Math and engine logic have limits.

An area where AI will assist more is in teaching related areas — be it school or retail — for evaluating how well people/kids are learning and where they need more help.

Ease off the AI and keep retail focused on the basics. You need to know the basics before you can enhance them with technology.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

“…people will have substantially more non-work time on their hands…” yeah, that’s the concern all right, but of course not with this positive spin attached to it.

Anyway, whatever the future may bring, I pretty sure AI eliminating CEOs won’t be something we’ll be seeing. Why they’ll be more important than ever … at least that’s what we’re always told as compensation rises.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

At least in the foreseeable future, I can’t see that AI will replace a CEO, but it will surely help the CEO. AI can amass and interrupt data super fast. The CEO or other leadership positions must know what data is relevant, and more important, what questions to ask to get relevant data. AI will make suggestions, but someone has to make the decision to implement those suggestions. For now, the CEO job is safe.

Vahe Katros
Guest
Vahe Katros
2 years 6 months ago

Retailers will have AI, customers will have AI and commerce will consist of robots finding, negotiating and returning products — they’ll coordinate and resolve all the headaches involved in retail to such a degree that shopping will no longer be a hassle. Retail will be a marketplace of infinite choice from around the world. It will be a new golden age for retailers. And yes, the CEO will be a robot managing other robot CEOs and at the top of the food chain will be the Chief Creatives who will amaze us with the wonders of the mind and the heart. The future will be amazing — stay healthy so you can enjoy it (and they’ll be robots to help you with that as well!) @BotSupport

gordon arnold
Guest
The emergence of information technology throughout businesses all over the world was realized in using it as a tool for the company’s accounting practice. Payroll, A/R, A/P and inventory were the front runners for large scale profit taking system sales. The rest came later at great expense to initial investors as well as the new ventures themselves. In this discussion we are looking to artificial intelligence as a means to save time, reduce errors and perform to optimum levels for making abstract business decisions. While this application seems new to the computer industry, we might get an understanding of what may be in store for us by looking at a couple of markets that have adapted with some unanticipated results. Let us look at human resources and medical diagnosis for a start. In both of these instances, the required input for success has seen information bottlenecks that remove control from ownership reducing effectiveness and delaying the process in its entirety. It is interesting to note that no system designed and in use as an artificial… Read more »
wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Knowing some CEOs today, I’d say a couple could be replaced by hand puppets, but that’s another topic."
"No, sorry, AI will never advance far enough to replace any critical decision making human."
"Not only will AI put a significant number of people out of work, but tax policy will have to evolve to move away from taxing only human work."

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