Editor’s Note: This article is one of a special series of 14 commissioned essays MIT Sloan Management Review is publishing to celebrate the launch of our new Frontiers initiative. Each essay gives the author’s response to this question:
“Within the next five years, how will technology change the practice of management in a way we have not yet witnessed?”
Workers on the factory floor have suddenly gathered at a point along the production line. Some are scratching their heads. Others are gesticulating wildly. Most stand with their hands in their pockets. Something is wrong, and no one has thought to call management.
In the near future, scenes like this one will be obsolete. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI), managers will be alerted to workplace anomalies as soon they occur. Unusual behaviors will be identified in real time by cameras and image-processing software that continuously analyze and comprehend scenes across the enterprise.
The hunch-based bets of the past already are giving way to far more reliable data-informed decisions. But AI will take this further. By analyzing new types of data, including real-time video and a range of other inputs, AI systems will be able to provide managers with insights about what is happening in their businesses at any moment in time and, even more significantly, detect early warnings of bigger problems that have yet to materialize.
As a researcher, I learned to appreciate the value of early warnings some years ago, while developing algorithms for analyzing data from hospital emergency rooms and drugstores. We discovered that we could alert public health officials to potential epidemics and even the possibility of biological warfare attacks, giving them time to take countermeasures to slow the spread of disease.
Similar analytic techniques are being deployed to detect early signs of problems in aircraft. The detailed maintenance and flight logs for the U.S. Air Force’s aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets are analyzed automatically to identify patterns of equipment failures that may affect only a handful of aircraft at present, but have the potential to become widespread. This has enabled officials to confirm and diagnose problems and take corrective action before the problems spread.
With AI, we can have machines look for millions of worrying patterns in the time it would take a human to consider just one.