Indian electrical engineer Arvind Krishna took over as global CEO of IBM, one of the largest technology companies in the world, in April 2020. It was no ordinary period. After thirty years of working in different areas of the company, he will be in charge of leading the development of quantum computers, the next technological revolution that will knock on humanity’s door. Krishna, however, faced a more complex challenge: leading, in the middle of a pandemic, a giant that is present in more than 170 countries and has almost half a million employees. Fortunately for you—and your company, of course—people have never been more willing to enjoy new technologies. In the following interview, Krishna talks about the changes brought about by the great crisis of the last two years and takes a close look at the digital revolution of the new era.
The pandemic has led to numerous changes in society. What has changed in the field of technology? Before the crisis, the biggest concern was whether the technology should be used on such a massive scale. After the pandemic, we started discussing the reliability of new technological resources and the risk of using them for nefarious purposes. When it comes to this, legislation and regulations are of great importance. Many countries are working in this direction, including Brazil.
So, has the health crisis changed the way the public views technology? In 2020, for the first time in a long time, global GDP fell without a labor shortage. Technology has shown that even in these moments it is possible to maintain intellectual work. Never in history have we had a vaccine that was created, tested and released in nine months. A lot of computer technology was used to develop the vaccine.
Can technology help prevent the next pandemic? Safe. Let’s take the Covid-19 crisis as an example. By helping to create vaccines, technology has reduced the negative effects of the pandemic. Still, it lasted nine months. Will we be able to reduce this time? Bring the vaccine to other countries more effectively? Collect, track and analyze enough data to predict the next pandemic? Maybe next time we can shorten the cycle by making the pandemic less invasive.
Will demand for technology continue to grow as normalcy returns? The population of Southeast Asia and Africa is growing. With this, it will be necessary to develop more services, expand health systems. However, there is not enough manpower. The only answer to this reality is technology. Right now, with high inflation and high interest rates around the world, technology is even more important because it drives the economy.
“In artificial intelligence, algorithms learn from the examples we provide. Society will only replicate well inside computers if we have different teams looking after them.”
What is the relationship between a country’s economic growth and its level of technological sophistication? Historically, technology has always followed GDP growth. Today, however, it is ahead by 3% to 4%. When I talk to governments in several countries, they estimate that technology represents 2% to 3% of GDP. Now they want that number to reach 6% or 7%. In other words, technology will play a more vital role in the future. In fact, it is reaching a point of relevance equal to that of financial services. It’s a big transformation.
Will technological progress lead to a scenario where human labor will become unnecessary? Not. I know I’m in the minority when I say this, but I’m sure I’m right. If we go back to 1900, more than 50% of the world worked in agriculture. Currently, the rate is 3%. The other 47% are not unemployed: they work in other industries we created, such as retail or health care. We have too many needs to reach a world where man will no longer have to work.
But some functions should disappear, right? Right now airports need hundreds of thousands of workers. The fiber market needs millions of people. Health too. There are countless examples of branches that require human beings. As technology evolves and automates production processes, we free people up to do other, possibly more intellectual, activities. But, of course, that is also work.
Some say that technology separates us from each other. Do you agree? You have to use technology correctly. We must not forget that democracy depends on our ability to transmit information. In this sense, technology is crucial because it spreads information and enables people to make better decisions. We must look at what George Orwell suggested in the in 1984: Will technology be used to create modern society or to change our behavior in a negative way? That is the key point.
Many people complain that smartphones make it impossible for us to talk at the table. They used to say that newspapers do the same thing. This role is not only played by technology. We need to have social rules that, in some way, regulate the way we use technologies. I believe that 90% of technology is there to help us, not to hinder us. We just need to make sure they don’t bury us in a bubble.
Should we fear the use of artificial intelligence? Will the day come when you can threaten humanity? Artificial intelligence is a tool that, if developed and used responsibly, has the power to bring enormous benefits to humanity. Its use alone is expected to generate $16 trillion in economic benefits by 2030. But these benefits can only be realized if we ensure that it is credible. Companies need to be clear about who is training their AI systems, what data is used in that training, and most importantly, what is included in their algorithm recommendations.
Artificial intelligence systems feed on information transmitted by humans. Will they repeat our mistakes and shortcomings in this sense? When we talk about artificial intelligence, algorithms learn from the examples we give. This means that society can only be perfectly replicated inside computers if we have different teams taking care of them. Therefore, it is necessary for the creators of the technology to be diverse. Without it, we will have homogeneity, we will reproduce stereotypes and patterns. It is impossible to have a perfect representation of everyone who exists on the planet, but it is necessary to have representatives of every major group that exists.
IBM intends to put a quantum computer on the market by 2025. How would its use affect our lives? This is the biggest technology platform change in decades. With quantum computing, we will be able to simulate the behavior of matter down to the atomic level, instead of making assumptions. This will allow us to solve problems that even the fastest supercomputers in the world cannot. Examples include reducing the time it takes to develop new drugs or materials, creating more accurate climate models, and even more efficient and powerful batteries.
How will the future see the technology we currently have? The year 2020 will be considered a turning point for the use of technology. I say this because in recent centuries we have lived and worked in a way similar to the routine that was applied in the industrial revolution. The bell rang and the workers left the house to work and returned only when they were allowed to. We still do it: we leave, at least most of us, at 9 am and come back at 5 pm. 2020 was the first year in which we didn’t have to behave like this, in which we prioritized our own time.
What was the impact of this revolution on the world of work?We were equally productive 99% of the time. This is a huge change, which would be impossible without technology, especially in terms of communication. We will consider the year 2020 as the first of a new era, more flexible in terms of work, especially in terms of location and the time we devote to our professional activities. We are living a great experiment.
“For the last centuries, we have been working in a way similar to the routine used in the industrial revolution. 2020 was the first year we prioritized our own time.”
What exactly would that be?Now, unlike any other time in human history, we can work from another country, on a global scale. Almost anyone can do it. A company’s best talent can be scattered all over the world. Technology allows them to engage with the company just as much as anyone physically present.
Has IBM adopted the home office model in its offices around the world?The current debate focuses too much on where people work rather than when. At IBM, we design work based on the results teams achieve, not their activities. We do not believe in any solution that says people should be in the office on certain days and at certain times. Teams can come on specific days or a whole week to work on a specific project or set collaborative hours when everyone is together. A culture of trust allows teams to work flexibly as long as they achieve their goals.
What would be the advantage of this model?Flexibility is important to get more women back into the workforce, given that they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In the future, I believe the physical workplace will be much more about collaboration and less about offices and desks where people perform routine tasks.
What will be the next technological revolution?I’m sure it will be quantum computing. These machines will be able to answer questions we don’t know the answers to. How will we reduce energy consumption? How will we most efficiently sequester carbon? How will we create the next vaccine? These answers require knowledge that we have not yet imagined and cannot be obtained with current technology. We are only a few years away from the point where quantum computing will start generating these answers.
Published in VEJA from September 14, 2022, number 2806