For decades, IBM’s slogan has been a single word: “Think”. Now its CEO wants to replace thousands of human workers with AI.
Speaking to Bloomberg, CEO Arvind Krishna said he thinks up to 30 percent of IBM’s back-office jobs – around 7,800 roles – could be replaced by AI.
Krishna said he thinks Big Blue will slow hiring in those roles in the next five years, as AI capable of replacing departing staff emerges.
The CEO didn’t specify the kind of AI he thinks can replace people. However back-office staff are sometimes described as “process workers” – folks whose work often requires them to undertake defined activities rather than exercise more abstract thinking.
Enterprise software often aims to streamline such processes, and these days often uses AI to make that happen.
Krishna’s remarks may therefore not be evoking the prospect of an HR-bot using large language models and generative AI to conduct performance reviews for Big Blue’s staff, but rather the impact of improvements to other tools.
The CEO’s plans appear to be confined to the back office – not the research or customer-facing staff who are expected to display creative and/or abstract thinking. The slogan probably emerges intact.
But Big Blue replacing people with AI is still awkward. This is, after all, the company that names its annual leadership gabfest “Think” and celebrates “A Culture of Think”.
“At IBM, one of the key elements of its culture and an important factor in its longevity is its willingness not only to tolerate but to encourage radical thinking,” states an article celebrating the tech industry titan’s 100th anniversary.
“IBM celebrates its so-called wild ducks,” the article continues. “As Bernard Meyerson, an IBM Research Fellow who joined the company in 1980, puts it, ‘Most places have a history of shooting disruptive people like me. IBM isn’t perfect, but if you’re willing to have the battle, and you base your argument on data, you can win’.”
Krishan’s remarks suggest IBM’s already got the data it wants about the comparative costs and productivity of people and AI, and is going to shoot people who are non-disruptive by design.
Such thinking is, in the present moment of enthusiasm for AI, completely non-radical. ®