The discussion around AI, its impact on the workplace and, more recently, the potential short and long-term risks has reached fever pitch in the last few months. Driven by seemingly universal interest in OpenAI’s ChatGPT platform, senior executives have been asking, and asked, how this will affect their organization. In parallel, there’s been much speculation on the impact this will have on certain jobs, functions and businesses – in some cases suggesting that AI will effectively replace people in many cases.

This is exciting – in every meaning of the word – but this hype cycle is not new. In fact, throughout the annals of human history technological innovation has prompted both enthusiasm and fear – not always in equal measure. What’s possibly at play is how deeply the threat of AI is ingrained in our mindset due to the entertainment industry’s bleak view of AI and its quest to excite our imaginations with the prospect of replacing – or even eradicating -- our species. Just as virtually every fictional future is dystopian, every AI incarnation is a Terminator or HAL waiting to happen.

The reality is likely to be somewhat less existential for us humans and we’ve already seen tech CEOs, who only a month or two ago were feting AI, take a step or two back and, in some cases, expressing a need for much more caution. Why? While we can expect the age of the ‘digital workforce’ to mature over the coming years this is, as my colleague Angela Zutavern and I outlined recently, the ‘age of And’. The future will be defined by people AND technology working together more seamlessly, enhancing what each brings to the workplace, rather than the latter superseding the former. This is especially true in areas like talent acquisition and leadership.

AlixPartners Annual Disruption Index has consistently highlighted the challenges facing leaders and we have published numerous articles exploring the deeply human challenges facing the CEOs of today and tomorrow. Technology is also consistently cited as a major disruptive force and opportunity for businesses. However, what we’re increasingly seeing is something of a bifurcation. On the one hand a deep fascination and commitment to widespread technological transformation, on the other an increasing demand for more human, empathetic and compassionate leadership. And, when it comes to people-related topics, we’re already seeing deepening suspicion around technology creep.

We’ve seen the early furor around AI change in tone over the last few weeks. Google’s ‘Godfather of AI’ Dr. Geoffrey Hinton’s departure during which he foreshadowed the potential perils of AI was unnerving. And, subsequent discussions across the media, among politicians and in the boardroom have begun to express deep concern. Thomas Friedman shared some compelling thoughts around the ethics of AI recently in the New York Times. Citing the example of social media as a warning, he wrote that what was once seen as innocuous and fun has become a cause of deep social concern, divide and now has been clearly seen as having significant negative effects on the mental health of children, particularly teenage girls.

All of these issues play out significantly in the leadership space where the need for good decision-making, prudent judgement, anchored by empathy and compassion, becomes even more necessary as AI becomes more widely used in businesses. While AI is great at synthesizing huge amounts of data and recognizing patterns, it is far less adept at navigating the complexity of human emotions or making decisions that take account of the  needs, motivations, and aspirations of human beings. In leadership these things matter. These qualities will also, one hopes, help us collectively temper the applications of AI and enable us to be the conscience of organizations looking to embrace the undoubted benefits this technology offers. As it stands these qualities aren’t within AI’s gift, and one might argue that even seeking to replicate them would be both dangerous and, likely, impossible. Maintaining a ‘human in the loop’ has been a longstanding component of military doctrine when it comes to automation; the same should be true in the operation and leadership of businesses.

Digitization is making organizations faster and flatter; leadership is being distributed. We need to train more managers in leadership and we need to embrace technology as a way to do that. In our work we are increasingly asked to find the right people who can lead organizations. The individual circumstances of each business we work with may differ wildly. Their business might be on the up but looking to supercharge growth or its fortunes may be less favorable and they’re looking for someone to guide them to stability. Each situation is unique, as is the culture, composition and challenges. Selecting the right leader for right now is increasingly critical as the risk of getting it wrong can be profound. As such, our assessment is detailed and profoundly human, and unable to be replicated by AI.

So, while the hype around AI continues, we should take comfort that the defining characteristics that make us human not only matter, but matter profoundly. Technology doesn’t always make the world or work simpler. In some cases it’s quite the reverse. That’s where empathy, compassion, wise decision-making and good judgment become even more indispensable.