White robot in a suit pointing at a floating screen with an image of a human brain

Is the position of CEO also under threat from the rise of the robots, or are human qualities our saving grace?

  • Almost everything in our world is already designed by and for machines
  • Is it likely that future companies will be run by CEO robots?
  • The human characteristics of a good CEO remain relevant

A lot has been said about how millions of jobs across various industries are set to be hijacked by robots. According to a report by PwC, machines are estimated to replace almost four out of every ten human workers in the United States. Many  articles about robotisation and digitisation – if not the majority – centre around lower-skilled job replacement, such as factory workers, drivers, and generally manual, repetitive labour. And we tend to think that jobs that require human qualities – such as entertainers, artists, and the leaders of our organisations – like managers and CEOs – are safe from this threat. But is this the case? Will machines not eventually be capable of replicating the human characteristics typically needed for leadership positions (vision, intuition, and charisma) as well? Make no mistake: artificial intelligence is learning at breakneck speed. And Google’s AlphaGo beating the world’s champion Go player illustrates that computers are exceptionally capable of teaching themselves. They are also becoming increasingly skilled at mimicking human qualities and emotions. And have you ever really paused to consider that our lives are becoming more and more optimised by robots – for robots?

Almost everything in our world is already designed by and for machines

Think about everything you read, send, and do online. All this content is optimised in such a way that search algorithms can trawl it, analyse it, and prioritise it so that information is presented to you, the reader, as effectively as possible. But even in the physical world, robots are becoming better at, and increasingly involved in, decision making. One example is staff work schedules that are becoming more and more automated. Millions of people around the world already work according to instructions created by software. With computers having the capability to monitor information of thousands of employees simultaneously, you can see how software might be more efficient at deciding who can and will work which shift.

As Emmanual Marrot writes for Venturebeat, “Robots are much better at optimization, and software can be easily scaled to more locations through cloud technology. Once a new scheduling method shows an improvement in a factory’s productivity, the new strategy can be replicated within seconds to hundreds of locations and immediately implemented. Without expensive training seminars. Without resistance to change.”

White robot and woman in white suit looking at computer screen
Robots are becoming better at, and increasingly involved in, decision making.

Decision-making driven by big data and analytics is also rapidly moving up the corporate ladder, perhaps even turning into direct managerial control at some point. A good example of a company where this is already the case is Uber. As Adi Gaskell explains for Forbes: “The whole Uber process is largely human-free, with drivers interacting primarily with the automated management system embedded within the mobile app. This automated manager will assign them pickup requests, give them feedback on their performance (both in terms of their workload and passenger satisfaction) and even punish them for not maintaining standards.”

So could robots be coming for managerial functions and even the position of CEO next? Will we see a CEO’s duties slowly but surely being optimised with – and ultimately replaced by – big data and (predictive) analytics?

According to Marrot, “Business books and management consultants commonly list six functions that a CEO is responsible for: determine the strategic direction, allocate resources, build the culture, oversee and deliver the company’s performance, be the face of the company, and juggle with everyday compromises. For most CEOs, developing objective, data-driven decisions is advantageous for the success of the company. Imagine the owner of a small construction company contemplating the purchase of an additional truck. Yesterday, the decision was entirely his. Today, real-time analytics of his company’s numbers begins to shape how much loan interest he would pay. Tomorrow, analytics will determine the location of his building sites and his employees’ trips. It will even monitor local economic trends to come up with a financial proposition. Soon after that, a computer will tell him ‘I’m sorry, Bob, I’m afraid can’t let you buy that truck’. Computers first help humans to be more efficient. Then they make them redundant.”

With the benefits of increased transparency and decreased office politics and favouritism, for instance, algorithmic management may eventually be pushed into mainstream use. The artificially intelligent manager or CEO will follow data-driven decision making strategies, inexorably shifting from task scheduling to reporting and, eventually, evolving into full managerial responsibilities.

Is it likely that future companies will be run by CEO robots?

During an entrepreneurship conference in China in the beginning of last year, Ma Yun – also known as Jack Ma – the Chinese business magnate, investor, philanthropist, co-founder, and CEO of Alibaba, said that the moment in which even CEO’s will be made irrelevant by technology is not too far away. Sherisse Pham writes for CNN that, according to Ma, “In 30 years, a robot will likely be on the cover of Time Magazine as the best CEO,” and that “In the next three decades, the world will experience far more pain than happiness.” He added that “Education systems must raise children to be more creative and curious or they will be ill-prepared for the future. Robots are quicker and more rational than humans, and they don’t get bogged down in emotions – like getting angry at competitors.”

Given that robots in the workplace hold many advantages over humans (they never run out of energy, they don’t get overworked or emotional and are immune to manipulation), a robot CEO might actually make a lot of sense. Their performance will be steady, unfaltering and dependable. Or will it?

Of course all this sounds too good to be true. And it is. Because like many machines and systems before, a robot CEO is not immune to hacking and tampering. A cybercriminal could corrupt a seemingly incorruptible and unswayable leader in one swift hack, after which the machine will be at the bad guy’s beck and call. Think tampered-with balance sheets and total company ruin, for instance. And that’s not all. Of course a robot CEO will lack the ability to apply intricate people skills because it simply doesn’t possess the emotional intelligence needed for such qualities… yet.

The human characteristics of a good CEO remain relevant

Of course the CEOs of the future need to be tech-savvy, but they also still need to build human systems and possess the characteristics needed for direction and good leadership: vision, charisma, intuition, flexibility. They need to be open to feedback and able to embrace strategic risk while remaining optimistic and purposeful. They have to be the navigator, negotiator, and mediator between competing or opposing people, situations, and information, and make difficult judgment calls. And then there’s cultural competence and company culture itself – how a CEO’s staff see their place within the company, what they value, and how they interact with their peers. These are all human qualities that ensure that a CEO’s job is likely to remain safe from AI-hijacking for quite some time to come.

As Judy D. Olian, dean of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, writes for Slate: “In parallel to the ascendancy of machine power, the importance of emotional intelligence looms larger than ever to preserve the human connectivity of organizations and communities. While machines are expected to advance to the point of reading and interpreting emotions, they won’t have the capacity to inspire followers, the wisdom to make ethical judgments, or the savvy to make connections. That’s still all on us.”

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