Arvind Krishna, CEO, IBM
Image: Brian Ach/Getty Images for Wired
Arvind Krishna has always embraced curiosity. From an early age, he would take things apart and put them back together to understand how they worked. His interests led him to engineering—eventually earning a Ph.D. and a job at IBM.
Krishna’s curiosity didn’t stop at scientific research, he told Dean Bill Boulding of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business as a guest in the school’s Distinguished Speakers Series. Instead, Krishna said the longer he worked at IBM, the more curious he became about the business aspects surrounding taking a successful product to market. Krishna said his desire to learn led to management and leadership roles—and eventually to CEO and chairperson of IBM.
“I would call it an evolutionary journey,” Krishna said, “not just something that was sort of structured and built upon. ”
Krishna said a commitment to continual learning has become an essential ingredient for leadership as technology continues to reinvent work—he expects even more transformational innovation in the decade ahead.
A “Netscape Moment” in Artificial Intelligence
Krishna said we are in a “Netscape moment”—referring to the web browser that made the internet widely known in the 1990s—with ChatGPT putting artificial intelligence in the public sphere in the same way.
“AI and ChatGPT today is kind of a 30-year overnight wonder,” Krishna said. “There are lots of things in technology like that, they look like overnight wonders but there has been 30 years of hard, grinding work.”
In 2010, IBM introduced Watson, an AI computer system that could answer questions asked in natural language. In 2011, Watson gained international fame by beating human contestants in the game show Jeopardy. Krishna said the deep learning technology that powered Watson had limitations.
“The problem was you still needed really expert people to label data which meant you really couldn’t scale them,” Krishna said. “There was a cost to each thing you did.”
Krishna said ChatGPT’s technology using large language models and generative AI doesn’t have the same labor constraints.
“I know generative AI gets all the buzz—it’s really, I think large language models, is probably the real fundamental breakthrough,” Krishna said. “For the first time, you don’t need a lot of humans to train (the algorithms)… that’s a huge advantage.”
Krishna said although he wishes IBM had been able to advance the technology behind Watson closer to where AI is today, he’s glad to see innovation happening in the space.
“Now with large language models we get another opportunity,” Krishna said. “This is one where luckily we can do a redo.”
Krishna said he believes quantum computers—which utilize the laws of quantum mechanics to solve problems larger than the capacity of current computers—will deliver major transformation.
”Sometime this decade, one of them is going to solve a problem that is going to make people stand back and say ‘wow,’” Krishna said. “I think the day that happens any set of countries or companies are going to run away with a massive advantage.”
Krishna said getting to that moment will also rely on people from multiple disciplines coming together, including business. Krishna believes business minds will be especially critical for determining the right use cases for quantum computing.
“So, you need to work on what kind of algorithms, which use case can leverage those algorithms, and the technology,” Krishna said, “And that’s kind of the excitement that is here.”
Krishna said quantum computers can also have positive environmental impacts by using less energy for intensive processing like crypto mining. Krishna also believes quantum computing will ultimately lead to better security with better encryption.
Krishna said the people who will lead innovations like quantum computing will possess three qualities: continuous learning, grit and excellent communications skills. He believes those three qualities are also needed by all employees today.
Krishna said leaders must have a commitment to do what is right for the organization, even if that means speaking up with an unpopular viewpoint. He told a story about an experience 20 years ago when he approached a mentor about not feeling heard by a leader. The mentor asked Krishna why he wasn’t articulating his case more directly to the leader, and Krishna said he was afraid he’d be fired. The mentor explained Krishna should adopt the view that being fired was better than not pushing for something he truly believed in.
“If you live every day in the pleasure of being fired, then that is incredibly freeing. Then you can always do the right thing,” Krishna said. “Don’t do it just for the sake of optics, do it because you really believe in it.”
Krishna said employees who possess that authenticity in a strong voice will also have the organization’s best interest in mind.
”In the end, I do believe strongly in my heart and my brain that merit and the right idea do carry a lot of weight,” Krishna said. “But you’ve got to be persistent and it’s got to be clear to the organization that you are not doing it for personal gain because that is when people mistrust a very strong point of view.”
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[This article has been reproduced with permission from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. This piece originally appeared on Duke Fuqua Insights]
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