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Here's How Artificial Intelligence, Robotics Are Edging Into Elite MBA Programs

Business schools can prepare managers for a volatile world in which AI will incur mass disruption

Sun Jul 31 2016

The android invasion is upon us.

Artificial intelligence (or AI) and robotics are disrupting industries everywhere, and have been for decades. Some 40 years on from their debut, ATMs have become bank tellers’ robotic replacements, while fresh examples — from driverless cars, automated factory floors and even algorithms that act as wealth managers — are walking out of labs and into our lives.

“What’s coming will be bigger than the last three industrial revolutions,” says Urs Peyer, associate professor at INSEAD, the business school.

The advent of the robots — and their potentially catastrophic impact on jobs — is about to prompt a shift in education, as the sector tries to robot-proof careers, many of which will look vastly different in future or perhaps be displaced completely by technology. Economic history suggests humans will move towards more highly-skilled roles with greater responsibility.

But how are business schools responding?

Courses on machine learning, data science, emerging technology and business innovation have edged their way into the MBA curriculum in recent years, as managers’ changing role in a human-robot world begins to become apparent.  

David Yoffie, professor of international business administration at Harvard Business School, says that MBAs need not become technologists — but they must have a basic understanding of how AI and robotics work — and the business opportunities and challenges they herald: “It’s an essential element of the landscape going forward,” he says.

The clearest sign yet of the digitization of the MBA degree is the emergence of big data analytics, which every elite school is scrambling to offer as companies demand managers who base decisions on data, not gut feeling.

Shawn Mankad, assistant professor of information management at Cornell University’s Johnson School, says: “Artificial intelligence, deep learning, and the overarching analytics field are going to significantly change all facets of business….Knowing data science is an absolutely critical requirement.”

However, the ability of machines to take on more challenging cognitive tasks, analyze data and make complex decisions, is becoming clear. Google-owned DeepMind’s recent trouncing of one of the highest-ranked champions of the ancient game Go is just one example of many dramatic advances in AI.

Researchers at Oxford University reckon 47% of US jobs are at risk of being replaced by automation. Managers often get left out of the debate on the perilous fate of human workers — through history, machines have mostly replaced brawn, not brain. Yet this is changing, and there may well be white-collar victims — machine learning is beginning to usurp M&A bankers and currency traders.

Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, and best-selling author on the future of work, says: “We would expect the middle-skilled jobs to increasingly be done by robots.”

While headlines have focused on the victims of the coming robot offensive, experts believe it won’t be long before AI and robotics enable engineers and entrepreneurs to spot opportunities to almost immediately leverage technology to create wealth.

Harvard’s David argues that AI and robotics are relevant for students who want to work at or found emerging digital companies, which are betting big on these technologies. Think Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX companies, which have relied heavily on robotics.

“AI and more so machine learning are going to be very important to those careers,” he says.

This highlights one of three key economic arguments about automation — that historically, job losses have always been countered by job creation.

Yet some economists beleive the rate of redundancies as a result of robotics will be so fast that it’s not possible for the market to respond quickly enough. “This time, it may be different,” says LBS' Lynda, chillingly. Ponder just one example: Self-driving cars threaten the millions who drive taxis or deliver food or work for Uber.

While its clear machines will disrupt at least some parts of the human workforce, so-called “soft skills”, such as negotiation and creativity, are unlikely to be performed best by AI, experts say.

“Those are assets that can’t be appropriated by machines,” says Thomas Lee, visiting assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “And they’re absolutely critical [for managers]. The fact that AI has become such a big part of business magnifies these capabilities.”

Business schools have an edge here, Thomas believes — MBA cohorts are increasingly diverse and this is significant in developing “EQ”, or emotional intelligence. Take Switzerland’s IMD: Its MBA cohort is 100% international, representing 39 nationalities. Thomas says: “The more you can put people into diverse environments, the easier it is to develop those capabilities.”

Clearly, the skill-set managers will need to work with machines in future will look different from today's. But to what extent it will change is anyone’s guess — and business school won’t yet provide an answer, nor a solution. What MBA programs can do, argues INSEAD’s Urs, is prepare managers for a volatile world in which AI looks likely to incur mass social, economic and political disruption.

“Being confident with ambiguity will be critical going forward,” he says.

Future business leaders will likely lead a meaningful public debate about what robotics and AI mean for our future — beyond the robotic revolution of the workplace.

“What does it mean if AI takes over? What are the roles for the humans then?” asks Urs.