Thornton May

Managing the ‘H’ out of AI

27 Feb 20245 mins
Artificial IntelligenceGenerative AIIT Leadership

CIOs need to move beyond hyperbole, hype, and hysteria to value creation and AI mastery.

Mature business woman discussing a project with her team in an office. Creative business people having a meeting in a boardroom. Business team working together in an advertising agency.
Credit: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

To survive in the Paleolithic Age, you had to be able to hunt and gather. In the Agrarian Age, thriving meant being able to farm. In today’s post-Industrial Age, you will need to master artificial intelligence. Full stop – end of conversation.

Well, “master” might not be the right word. Like outrunning the proverbial lion, you will need to be better than the next guy at AI to be competitive in this day and age. But what does that mean and how do you do that?

The reality is, few, if any, truly know today. And a lot of that has to do with where the conversation has gone on AI — toward total fog.

People have gone nuts about AI. I am not certain whether this is the kind of nuts that accompanied the Dutch Tulip frenzy of the 1630s or the South Sea Bubble of 1720 but there is a lot of AI cuckoo in the form of the three H’s we need to move beyond – hype, hyperbole, and hysteria — blocking the path to harnessing the full potential of the technological moment we currently occupy.

To wit: A consultant operating in the travel and hospitality vertical declaims that “AI is the most technologically important shift since fire and the wheel.” HP CEO Enrique Lores told C-level colleagues at Davos that if they did not understand the relationship between AI and other major business drivers that they “will not be in this room in a year.” A vendor CEO told client CEOs that because of AI “every single one of us will need to write a new job description.” And AI poster child Sam Altman is lobbying for a $7 trillion investment in AI chip development.

CEOs and boards of directors, not wanting to be left behind or labeled as being “behind” are engaging with AI. The consensus determination of “White-Shoe,” top-of-the-house professional services players — e.g., Bain & Co., Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, and Arnold & Porter — is that nearly a quarter of CEOs and board members are personally using generative AI tools for work.

But how to get somewhere substantive? Only by breaking through the fog.

Obtaining clarity

In 2024 I have thrown myself into the buzz saw of AI hysteria attempting, at a series of C-level executive retreats, to restore sanity to the processes whereby IT investments are made and sustainable competitive capabilities are created.

I begin the AI hysteria detox with a series of exercises trying to place the technology moment in which we find ourselves in historical context. I ask executives to recount their “most memorable experience with emerging technologies.” I have been pleasantly surprised to observe that 95+% of the respondents recount pleasurable/positive personal experiences with emerging technologies. These are not anti-technology Luddites at the top of the house. They are “anti-doing-it-wrong.”

Our next exercise is asking the executives to select the movie, TV show, work of literature, or work of art that comes closest to capturing the “State of AI” today. This generates a fascinating set of responses. There are the darker artifacts: Terminator, Blade Runner, and 2001 Space Odyssey, the one where HAL decides humans are in the way of the programmed mission. There are cautionary responses reflecting concern/confusion: for example, Picasso’s cubist works, Ender’s Game, and War Games. And there are humorous and hopeful artifacts: Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man,and The Jetsons.

One executive cited Michelangelo’s sculpture Awakening Slave, which sits with David in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, Italy. The slave is sculpted emerging from the rock – an apt metaphor for modern executives emerging from the constraints of technical debt and keyboard interfaces. Or perhaps a reference to liberating knowledge workers from scut work. Automation Anywhere CEO Shukla Mihir claims, “Twenty to forty percent of our labor workforce is trapped into acting like bridges between applications.”

One of the most powerful responses was the 1977 sci-fi movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The respondent explained that the movie builds to and celebrates a “moment of truth” where the protagonists are essentially asked, “Will you stay, or will you go?” Artificial intelligence is asking each of us that same question. We really have no choice but to go forward with AI.

AI is not a “pet rock” or “Furby,” some fad or novelty that will move quickly from mania to disillusionment and ultimately disinterest. AI is the competitive focal point for at least the next 10 years. In the face of a screaming need to get smart fast about this new disruption, most of what is being presented to senior management teams is nubilous and otiose drivel. Cutting through all that to be the one to illuminate the path to doing it right is what will set you apart.

After all, it has been said that even the Pope has an “AI guy.” As a CIO you need to become that “guy” — or make sure you have one on speed dial.

Thornton May

Thornton May is a futurist. He has designed and delivered executive education programs at UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Babson, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, THE Ohio State University [where he co-founded and directs the Digital Solutions Gallery program], and the University of Kentucky. His book, The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics examines the intersection of the analytic and executive tribes.

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