By Jason Seiden, former Vice President – Consulting Growth & Innovation

What will my company look like in a fully AI-enabled world?

That’s arguably one of the most important questions business leaders must ask today. This question is pressing for two reasons:

  1. The future of artificial intelligence is arriving quickly. Big news drops daily – even while writing this article, IBM announced plans to augment 7,800 jobs with AI.
  2. Despite a general sense that AI – specifically generative AI – could become dangerous, you currently have the expertise in your organization to chart a more optimistic future right now.

Your current team’s experience as first-generation AI immigrants is key to helping your company avoid the inherent risks in this technology. By embracing their knowledge and learnings, you can harness AI’s power for good – even after welcoming the next generation of users.

To successfully capture that experience (and include it in your business plans), it’s critical to understand why it’s so important. And looking back at the beginning of social media will help.

Anticipating an AI future by looking at our social media past

The first generation of social media users approached tools like Facebook and LinkedIn as a way to expand their personal and professional networks. When social media was new, there were scores of articles citing the natural limit of how many relationships a person can manage concurrently (also known as Dunbar’s number), and how social media allows even the most introverted people to push beyond it.

But second-generation users used social media to establish their networks. They used likes, shares, and comments as primary building blocks rather than boosters. Social media went from being an extension of the world to a core part of it – transforming from a source of connection to the source of a loneliness epidemic.

One has to wonder how things might have turned out differently if the first generation of social media users asked: What skills am I intuitively bringing to my social media journey that the next generation will have to learn from scratch? Had skills such as prioritizing real-world experiences, de-escalating emotional situations by moving them to private channels, or even just assessing the relative credibility of two unknown sources, the second generation would have enjoyed a more positive and enriching social media experience.

What does this mean for the future of AI?
While you can’t unring the social media bell, you can – sitting at the precipice of another major technological shift – use history to ask: What skills will our company‘s future AI users struggle with that our first-generation AI immigrants find easy and how can we use that knowledge to prepare for the future?

One skill that comes to mind immediately: curiosity.

The importance of curiosity
Generative AI consumes and manipulates massive amounts of content to answer open-ended questions, create and summarize original content, and even create images. And it does so with such fluidity that it’s difficult to tell if it was created by a person or AI. While today’s AI immigrants may debate whether this is cause for awe, excitement, fear, skepticism, or some combination thereof, one thing every first-generation AI user shares is a deep awareness of the reality AI is simulating – an awareness that no AI native will have.

This means when the next generation reads a proposal, sees an ad, or interacts with a company via chat, they’ll have no way of initially knowing if they’re interacting with AI. They won’t know if an image background has been manipulated or if a quote was simply made up.

They’ll have to ask.

But how will they even know to ask? Will they have to put everything they see through a second AI system – one that’s programmed to identify AI-generated content? There will be no time, and no budget, for that. They must learn explicitly how to spot the tells of AI-generated content that are intuitively recognized by first-generation users.

Forward-looking companies will develop protocols today to ensure that tomorrow’s employees can raise their hands and question the machines. The good news is you can do that. In fact, you probably already are.

Empowering curiosity among AI-native employees
Great cultures make it safe for employees to ask questions, seek information, and even raise red flags. They’ll continue to do that.

For many more companies, curiosity is already a core value. The opportunity here is in execution. Only about 24% of employees from across industries recently reported regularly feeling curious, and about 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.

To capture the many benefits (and mitigate the many risks) of generative AI, talent leaders must empower employees to be curious. Once you understand their current state, here are three ways to create a culture of curiosity:

  1. Ensure your talent acquisition processes serve human judgment
    Your talent function has systems designed to enable decision-making, reward structures, performance management, and communication, both formal and informal. As technologies are introduced or fall into disuse and people move, these processes can hinder human judgment rather than support it. Regularly monitor your talent processes to ensure they encourage curiosity, not inadvertently condemn it.

  2. Build strong and active informal communication channels
    When adapting to new technologies, all employees are in the same boat – and the person with the highest title may not have the expertise you need most. Informal communication channels that allow people to engage outside of the company’s hierarchy will spur a culture of curiosity. Implementing a mentorship program or encouraging the use of Teams or Slack for casual chats can be a powerful way to future-proof your team’s use of generative AI.

  3. Demonstrate openness at the top
    Modeling behavior is a great way to draw it out. Make sure your executives don’t just model curiosity but reward it, too. Low-cost ways to encourage curiosity include publicly acknowledging people for asking questions, keeping employees on emails as their questions move up the chain, and setting up calls that invite interaction between teams.

Your existing team’s experience as AI immigrants is key to avoiding the inherent risks of this technology. Embracing curiosity not only helps your company stand out from the competition, but it also ensures the next generation can use generative AI for good.