Rise of the machines

ASK 100 students what they want from an MBA programme and you’re likely to get 100 different answers. However, ask them what they want more of, and trends are easier to discern. At the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, a survey of the current class earlier this year asked what students wanted to learn more about. The biggest response by far? Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. “It has rapidly consumed a lot of mental real estate with our MBA students,” says Brian Uzzi, who teaches a course on AI to MBAs at Kellogg.

That is not surprising. AI has become a key tool for businesses in all industries. By harnessing the power of computers to rapidly analyse data, detect patterns and suggest courses of action, businesses are able to work much faster and with fewer overheads. British supermarkets Tesco and Ocado use machine learning to help improve the routing of delivery drivers and to detect fraudulent transactions. Customer-facing businesses including Virgin Holidays use algorithms and big data to tweak marketing messages on the basis of real-time feedback. Uber harnesses machine learning to forecast demand and help direct its taxi drivers ahead of time to customers. It has also used AI to determine the level of price increases individual customers are willing to tolerate. A wave of recruitment startups use AI to weed through job candidates and screen for the best prospective interviewees—and even prospective MBAs.

Where business leads, business schools follow. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will soon permeate the entire DNA of the MBA programme at Kellogg and elsewhere, believes Mr Uzzi. Kellogg teaches AI in two different ways: one track of students takes an intensive, data-heavy course in which they learn hands-on how to develop neural networks that can solve problems. The other is a broader look at the impact AI can have on all aspects of a business, from hiring and firing decisions to helping a firm operate with greater efficiencies. 

Three-quarters of Kellogg’s MBAs elect to take the broader track, though the numbers of those interested are currently higher than the school can serve: the school’s course on human and machine intelligence is oversubscribed by a fifth, Mr Uzzi says. When the professor began incorporating AI into his research a decade ago, all but a handful of the 3,000 students he taught knew what AI was. Now, almost all do.

MBAs want to learn how AI is being used in the firms they are likely to graduate into, explains Michael Gibbs, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth’s School of Business, and former director of its Executive MBA (EMBA) programme. “Our students are not going to be deploying AI themselves, but they’re going to be hiring somebody to deploy it,” he says. Demand for it is high. Last summer around 30 of Chicago Booth’s EMBA class of 240 students across three campuses chose to take machine learning or algorithm-related electives, says Mr Gibbs. By contrast, just two chose an elective in business ethics. Chicago Booth has long been a data-driven school, but the makeup of students Mr Gibbs teaches has changed in recently years. When he started teaching nearly three decades ago, most students came from a finance or consulting background. Now, he estimates 40% have a technology background. 

Chicago Booth incorporates AI throughout the entire EMBA programme: classes on organisational design and human resources touch on how AI is changing the workplace. Other schools are also throwing their weight behind AI: Imperial College London’s business school has a two-year master of science in business analytics that teaches machine-learning applications for business. Other schools, including MIT Sloan, Harvard and Hult all incorporate AI into their teaching.

MBAs and executives are eager to learn about the power of AI. The challenge is in anticipating how automation will make jobs obsolete, and identifying the opportunities it provides to boost expertise. For years, IBM has been training AI to help doctors diagnose patients more quickly and accurately; similar decision making processes in business, previously the preserve of executives in the c-suite, could also be aided by AI. The technology is likely to become yet another tool a business can use to gain competitive advantage. Those destined to lead these firms need to have knowledge of how to use them to their full potential. And of course, MBAs are looking to create the next big, disruptive company. “You’ve got to remember MBAs are driven by role models,” says Mr Uzzi. “Jeff Bezos is now the richest person in the world and he’s been pretty much able to do that thanks to advances in AI."

Advertisement

Advertisement feature

Advertisement

Products and events


Take our weekly news quiz to stay on top of the headlines


Visit The Economist e-store and you’ll find a range of carefully selected products for business and pleasure, Economist books and diaries, and much more

Advertisement