Artificial intelligence efforts lack long-term vision, and it may be a structural problem. Worse yet, the direction of AI — and future of corporate decision-making — is now concentrated in a relatively small handful of global companies.
That’s the word from author and futurist Amy Webb, who recently shared her concerns with Michael Krigsman, host of CxOTalk. Webb, a professor of strategic foresight at NYU and founder of the Future Today Institute, says AI is being shaped by nine companies, all in the US or China: Alibaba, Amazon, Apple, Baidu, Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and Tencent. Webb documented the hold these organizations have on AI and other technologies in her recent book, The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity.
The growing hold these companies have on emerging technologies became evident to Webb early in her research. “I kept coming back to the same companies over and over and over again,” she relates. “These companies that are building the frameworks, the custom silicon, it’s their algorithms, it’s their patents. They have the lion’s share of patents in this space. They’re able to attract the top talent. They have the best partnerships with the best universities. It’s these nine companies who are building the rules, systems and business models for the future of artificial intelligence. As a result of that have a pretty significant influence on the future of work in everyday life.”
That’s where the commonalities end, however. The three Chinese tech giants are building an AI-driven world that reflects a government-dominated viewpoint, while the six US companies are highly commercialized, Webb says. This puts AI on two different developmental tracks, she continues. “In China those companies may be independent, but as Chinese companies they have to follow leadership of the Chinese government. And China has very different viewpoints on data and privacy on freedom of speech and expression and also how business ought to be done worldwide.” The six US-based companies, on the other hand, “are publicly traded companies with fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders. As a result, they’re often under significant pressure to push AI into the marketplace using commercial products as soon as possible.”
The challenge “is there’s very little transparency about how decisions are being made,”she says. “Decisions that drastically affect everyday life are being made by algorithms which were designed by a relatively small group of people working at just a few companies,” she says. “That process is not in any way meaningfully transparent. This is a system — a series of systems — built by a relatively small number of people into which many new startups are plugging in. Those systems are predicated on making decisions using various pieces of our data.”
There needs to be leadership by government and business leaders to set guidelines for AI, Webb believes. However, with pressure on quarterly results, and “the weirdness right now in Washington, DC,” Webb doesn’t see progress anytime in the near future. “It’s just a circumstance of our current situation. It’s not part of our federal government, it’s not part of most of these companies. We don’t have long-term rigorous strategic planning and so everybody’s doing what they think is best for themselves. There’s not a lot a lot of long-term planning at the uppermost levels of leadership, to think about what all of this might mean 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now.”
This mandates that executive bring a strategic vision to AI — also a requirement that can’t be outsiourced to the big tech companies. To address this, Webb urges that business leaders take ownership of AI, and not rely on the nine tech giants to set an AI course. “Don’t allow others to make those critical technology decisions for you,” she says. “It’s certainly not the vendors. they’re never going to know you and your organization as well as you do. To outsource this critical thinking and strategic planning is a mistake.” This includes turning over control of AI to IT departments or a semi-detached skunkworks operation, she adds. “You have to think about technology and process automation. AI needs to take place “through the lenses of HR and compliance, sales and marketing.”