As organizations move rapidly into the era of AI, now is the moment for leaders to seize control of the conversation about how technology is deployed.

Technological change is never only about the technology – it’s about the people, too. With AI quickly becoming commonplace in organizations, it is fast becoming essential for leaders to understand and actively shape exactly how AI is deployed.

That was one of the fundamental messages to emerge from Duke Corporate Education’s recent New York event in partnership with Mastercard and Fortune, entitled Leading with AI: Shaping a Human-Centric Future. It was a message that came with a warning. “We must keep humanity in lockstep with technology,” said Bill Boulding, dean of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. “Right now, the humanists are losing the race to the technologists.”

That leaves leaders with substantial challenges to address, said Boulding. One relates to how work is carried out by machines and by humans.

“Now is the time business can really get it right by thinking through how this technology should enhance human productivity, while emphasizing the role of human judgment in developing responsible uses,” he argued. “Is freeing people up for a higher purpose using AI happening as quickly as we’re replacing jobs with AI? If not, businesses will lose trust.”

The future will be shaped by value judgments about how AI should be used, added Boulding: “We cannot lose the role of human judgment and strong ethics in defining the future of AI.”

The point was underlined by Sharmla Chetty, Duke CE’s chief executive. “We can’t leave the questions around AI just to data scientists or technology teams,” Chetty argued. “We, as leaders and experts in human capital, own this conversation – and it’s our moment to claim it.”

The implications of AI

The risks associated with AI are being increasingly widely discussed, from the threat of perpetuating today’s social biases, resulting in flawed, opaque decision-making, to the danger to democratic processes. Saša Pekec, professor of decision sciences at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, outlined several challenges. AI will take a binary position, he pointed out, determined by how the available information in any given situation is aggregated, regardless of nuance. And AI cannot assess the quality of the information it is presented with – or determine whether the information is relevant or verified. That makes critical thinking essential. (See his article, ‘Think, critically’, in Dialogue Q3 2023).

Leaders need to engage with the reality that AI’s impact on their organizations – and the wider economy – will be enormous. “It’s not just about how the technology is moving extremely rapidly and what organizations need to do to transform their business models,” pointed out Michael Fraccaro, chief people officer of Mastercard, “but also what the implications are for society and for our employees. What does it mean for organization design? What does it mean for skill building?”

Andrew Reiskind, Mastercard’s chief data officer, said that the implications for talent are significant. “We need to teach our employees to change,” observed Reiskind. “We all thought we needed them to learn AI, but we actually need to teach them critical thinking skills to ask the right questions.” Leaders need to “bring learning to others, while we continue our own learning journeys,” he added.

Making AI work for humanity

Another session homed in on how AI can make the world a better place for humans. “If AI doesn’t work for humanity, then it just does not work,” said Julia F Alexander, co-founder and chief product officer of ExecOnline. “We have to set a standard that says AI solutions must deliver better outcomes, better collaboration, and it must unlock human potential. That’s certainly our mission.”

JoAnn Stonier, Mastercard fellow of data and AI, concurred. “We need to design with human-centered outcomes. What we really want to do is make things better for people.” That means building on clear ethics, she added.
Scott Snyder, chief digital officer at Eversana, echoed the point. “When we started writing our responsible development framework for AI, we started with our company values,” he explained. “Ethics is a huge part of everything you put forward for your employees and your customers.”

After the inflection point

Further perspectives on the transformational impact of AI were explored by Fortune’s CEO Alan Murray with Raj Seshadri, president of data and services at Mastercard, and Thomas Solecki, head of strategy and analytics for engineering at BNY Mellon. While AI has already been in use for some years, they reflected, ChatGPT has been an inflection point. It has democratized AI to the point that anyone can use it, from students in their bedrooms, to senior executives who can understand and use the technology without needing a software developer’s specialist skills. The urgency of the conversation around with AI has increased as a result.

“AI is being used in people’s personal lives, so people are energized around the opportunities with it,” noted Solecki. That has been mirrored in the excitement levels within organizations. But in the rush to take advantage of AI, putting in place the right governance will be hugely important added Solecki, helping ensure trust among customers and clients.

Of course, while governance should provide guiderails for AI’s use, it should not hold organizations back from capturing the benefits – for example in helping drive innovation. “We want everyone involved in innovation of products and of how we work,” said Seshadri. At Mastercard, he explained, employees are encouraged to identify ways to use AI in their work, pitching their ideas to advisers and management to ensure it fits with their ways of working. Once approved, employees can implement their plans.

As the old song has it: you ain’t seen nothing yet. The AI era is only just beginning. Putting in place the processes to ensure that AI is used effectively, innovatively and ethically as part of a human-centric future will be a crucial challenge for leadership in the years ahead.

Image features speakers and guests at the conference including Bill Boulding of the Fuqua School of Business; Duke CE’s Sharmla Chetty with Francine Katsoudas, Cisco, and Andrew Reiskind, Mastercard; Duke CE’s David Welsh and Matt Kelley with guests; and Duke CE’s Vishal Patel.