Fourth Industrial Revolution

Could the CEO be replaced by a robot?

A man touches SoftBank humanoid robot known as Pepper as he demonstrates its translation function at Pepper World 2016 Summer during SoftBank World 2016 conference in Tokyo, Japan, July 21, 2016.

Boardroom ambitions? A humanoid robot on display Image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Luis Alvarez Satorre
Former Chief Executive Officer, Global Services, BT Group, BT Group
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Fourth Industrial Revolution

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

With the automation of many everyday activities, could a robot be a more productive addition to boardrooms of the future than a CEO?

In an era defined by the exponential evolution of technology, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) have come a long way in a short space of time. From lifting hot pieces of metal and stacking them, as the first digitally operated and programmable robot did in 1961, commercial and industrial robots are now widely used to remove repetitive tasks and make our lives easier. Robots can perform surgical operations, build cars, move stock in warehouses, check you into your hotel and serve you drinks. And they can do it quickly and efficiently.

The aluminium cab of all-new 2015 F-150 pick-up truck moves down the robot assembly line at the Ford Rouge Center in Dearborn, Michigan, November 11, 2014.
Robots have already taken on many tasks. Next stop, the boardroom? Image: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

AI is expected to evolve significantly beyond today's relatively simple machine learning to better understand human behaviour. That means robots making decisions on their own in more complicated situations. And as they get cleverer, they would be able to take on increasingly challenging jobs, helping free the human worker up to be more productive.

But could they take on as challenging a role as the CEO?

The case for a robot CEO

There are some distinct advantages to having a robot as your company’s CEO. Firstly, they might be able to make better, more responsible, decisions. Background “noise” can hugely affect the decision-making process. If I’ve had a bad meeting, am suffering jet lag or simply have other things on my mind, my decisions could suffer.

Robots don’t face the unpredictability we humans face, so their decisions are more likely to be consistent, based on facts.

Secondly, diary management would cease to be an issue. Robots can work all day, every day. They don’t need sleep, weekends or holidays. No mere humans can say the same, however hard they may try to cultivate that impression.

But what about customer meetings? According to Deloitte’s State of the State report, situations which require a high degree of personal interaction still face a 23% chance of automation, so networking with the robo-boss isn’t entirely out of the question. And if you’ve created one CEO robot, why not create a few more? It’s not as if he or she has a unique personality. Technology allows them to interact wherever your customers are, further cutting down travel costs and helping the environment.

Are CEOs facing a robot coup?

There are some obvious areas where the skills that senior leaders have built up over their career will put them at the advantage from their robotic competition. For example, a CEO’s ability for critical reasoning and creativity, the ability to think beyond an algorithm, is something we haven’t yet managed to develop in a robot.

In my view, we should embrace artificial intelligent systems as our co-workers and invite them into our boardrooms. The future isn’t robot or human, but a more nuanced way of working to get the best out of technology and ourselves.

Automating tasks and even decision-making could not only make me more productive and responsible, it could also improve my business, and it’s bottom line. But AI could also free me up to do more rewarding work – to meet with customers and employees.

And that’s because there is one thing we’re in danger of overlooking - the impact on our employees on having a robot in charge. As leaders, we need to engage, motivate and inspire our teams, especially in times of uncertainty.

Can a robot energise its followers and improve the state of the world? Maybe one day, but not yet.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Fourth Industrial RevolutionEmerging Technologies
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