“A human in the loop is critical.” McKinsey leaders on generative AI at US media day

It is half a year since the launch of ChatGPT—a technology that thrust generative AI into the spotlight and into the hands of the masses. While its full impact is still to be determined, it’s clear that this technology is becoming a disruptor across all industries, with the potential to disrupt nearly every part of a business. But leaders still have more questions than answers: What specific use cases will impact my business? What risks must be managed? How does this change the way we think about talent and people?

These questions and more came up in a lively discussion during McKinsey’s recent US media day, Halftime Report: A Mid-Year Update on the CEO Agenda. At a gathering attended by US-based business journalists, leaders from across the firm explored pressing topics they’ve heard from clients, with three themes dominating the agenda: generative AI, the future of work, and the crucial role of productivity in driving economic growth.

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Generative AI

Generative AI is poised to unleash the next wave of productivity. We take a first look at its potential business value.

Senior partner Ben Ellencweig, who leads alliances and acquisitions at QuantumBlack, AI by McKinsey, noted that companies are learning about generative AI at an accelerated pace, and are compelled to adapt to the groundbreaking technology in weeks, not months or years.

In a discussion moderated by Axios’s global-technology correspondent Ryan Heath, Ben urged business leaders to be mindful of “the four Cs”: coding—citing productivity gains of 35-55 percent among client software developers using generative AI tools as they code— customer engagement and creating more personalized interaction, creative content generation, and content synthesis.

“Generative AI is becoming the virtual knowledge worker,” said Ben, “with the ability to connect different data points, summarize and synthesize insights in seconds, allowing us to focus on more high-value add tasks.”

Senior partner and McKinsey’s chief technology and platform officer Jacky Wright added that the ability for technology to take over a selection of simple or repetitive tasks will open up possibilities for workers to engage in more creative or cognitively focused pursuits.

“There will be new roles, and new business models based on generative AI,” she said.

At least some of those new roles, the senior partners agreed, will be dedicated to answering the question of how best to employ generative AI technologies.

“For most generative AI insights, a human must interpret them to have impact," added QuantumBlack global leader Alex Singla. "The notion of a human in the loop is critical.”

It was noted that much of McKinsey’s recent work has involved thinking through the risk and regulatory considerations surrounding generative AI for clients, and its potential impact on the workforce. The firm recently published a report, “The economic potential of generative AI: The next productivity frontier,” which explored how AI technology could add the equivalent of $2.6 trillion to $4.4 trillion annually to the global economy, while also transforming business operations across all sectors.

In the second session, senior partner and chief people officer Katy George was joined by senior partner Scott Blackburn and partner Anu Madgavkar to debate the future of work. The conversation, which was moderated by Wall Street Journal deputy bureau chief for the careers and workplace department, Vanessa Fuhrmans, focused on the growing expectations of employees to develop their skillsets at work while striking the right balance between home and in-person working.

For most generative AI insights, a human must interpret them to have impact. The notion of a human in the loop is critical.

Alex Singla, McKinsey senior partner and QuantumBlack leader

“We’re seeing a need for more micro-opportunities to help people see the advancement they’re making,” said Katy, “so people can plot their own career path and author it themselves with credentials that are valuable internally and externally.”

Productivity was the final topic of the day. Improvements in labor productivity have been the engine of US economic power and prosperity since World War II, but in the past 15 years, productivity growth has faltered, averaging under 1.4 percent annually, compared to long-term rates of 2.2 percent.

Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio was joined by senior partner and North America managing partner Asutosh Padhi, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) director Olivia White, and partner Ezra Greenberg to dig into the factors holding institutions back from peak productivity—and how to solve for them.

“The most productive companies are the most resilient in the face of economic downturn,” Asutosh explained. “As CEOs navigate historic tightness across both capital and talent, productivity is not an answer to growth and economic prosperity… it is the only answer.”

McKinsey’s media days are part of an ongoing series of events offering members of the press an opportunity to get the latest perspectives from our leaders, who outline the most pressing issues that CEOs are facing today.

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