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AI means we'll work smarter, but just as hard, says Box CEO Aaron Levie

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 11, 2024
Summary:
AI will automate a lot of today's repetitive tasks, but there will still be plenty of work to go around, says Box CEO Aaron Levie

Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, speaks at its AI Disrupt event in London June 2024
Aaron Levie (Box)

If you were expecting the benefits of AI to include more leisure time or enabling a four-day work week, then think again. While AI promises to free up our time by automating repetitive work, those productivity gains won't lead to businesses either laying off staff or reducing everyone's regular working hours. Instead, argues Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, companies will just do more with the same resources. He explains:

The company that implements the four-day work week, they'll just have a competitor that says, 'Well, we can work five days, but also with this productivity gain. So we're going to ship even more software, we're going to innovate even more and be able to serve even more customers and go even more global.' And so you'll just compete out the assumed 25% gain in productivity that the four-day work week company got.

He's equally skeptical of the economic projections that suggest unemployment will rise as organizations cut staff to capture productivity gains from implementing AI. He believes the economic models are set up to measure existing activities but aren't so good at forecasting the impact of new ways of working. In the past, spreadsheets, word processors and developer tools have all automated away work, but organizations have just swallowed up the productivity gains to do more. He believes it will be the same with AI:

I'm generally a believer that, due to how competitive and dynamic all of our respective industries are, I don't think that the economy will support just, all of a sudden, us banking these gains, and just saying, 'Okay, now people can be free 50% of the time.' I think we will just eat up the productivity, and it'll be more that we'll slowly forget how things used to work...

In practice, if we look at any of our organizations, there is no chance that any one of our companies is building as much software or technology as we'd actually like to. In fact, we're actually more supply constrained by just the cost of labour or the amount of talent available, then we are demand constrained...

In the conversations we have with customers, usually most of the demand for AI right now is actually solving new problems that the company wasn't getting around to. It's actually going and doing the long tail of work that we just literally never had time for, or couldn't afford to go spend energy on.

This may sound like we'll all have to work harder because so much more of our time will be spent on creativity, analysis, empathy and decision-making, rather than repetitive tasks that don't require much thought. But Levie argues this will be much more satisfying:

The most fun I have, that I don't think I have ever run out of energy for, is the creative work, the work in front of customers, innovating, building new products, coming up with new ideas, strategizing. The stuff that is draining is, the 93rd email that you're sending in a day and the 400 tabs I have open to do research on a new idea. If we can have that get accelerated with AI, spend more time on the stuff that is in front of the customer, building a better product, delivering higher-quality marketing, that's not the draining stuff, at least for me...

It's the trifecta. You're going to do more, you're not going to be drained, and you're going to have a lot more fun in the work that you're doing.

Productivity revolution

With everyone working more effectively, the pace of change will notch up even more. He cites an example where he personally saved several hours by using ChatGPT to collate and analyze some research. He says:

This is, I think, the part that will be hard to quantify about AI, but literally will be the impact of AI, which is I didn't call somebody to do it, I could do it myself. And so I moved something forward faster than I would have, if I had sent the task out, waited three days for the task to get completed, and then we moved things forward. You multiply that by everybody in the economy, and I think what you end up seeing is just literally an acceleration of progress. And that will be the ultimate measure of probably what AI does.

Levie's company Box is at the center of this new revolution in productivity, he believes, because of its focus on managing enterprise content. He explains:

We are one of the largest repositories in the world of unstructured data and content, and AI now is the first breakthrough technology, Gen AI specifically, that can literally look read, listen, watch, all of that information, understand and process it, let you ask questions of it. So to us it's just this incredible gift of technology that we can now deliver so much more value for our customers. Compare that to, literally name any other software company, and I think you'd be hard pressed to find another company as significantly benefited by this technology as Box.

He gives the example of a customer in film production that needed an AI agent to read scripts and then analyze where would be the best locations to film the movie, based on tax rebates and subsidies. What would take a human many hours is just a minute of compute time. He goes on:

AI lets us now open up probably 100 times the number of use cases because of all the things that we do or could do with our content, where we can tap into now the knowledge of our organization, we can automate nearly any business process, we can pull out so much more value from our content. This will be the reason why we become 10 times larger as a company...

In the next six or 12 months... we think there's a revolution in what companies can do with their content. So our job is to make sure that Box is the de-facto platform for intelligent content management. When you think about how do I bring AI to my information, we need to be the single platform that delivers that.

My take

Levie's irrepressible optimism about AI is a welcome antidote to all the doom merchants arguing that intelligent machines will take over first our jobs and then a few years later the entire world. I share his optimistic forecast for an AI-infused future, based on what we've seen from the impact of past technologies, although the change this will bring to many job roles will mean short-term disruption for many. Humans will adapt, but there are social risks along the way.

But I do take issue with his assumption that keeping everyone in full-time employment is the best response. Insisting on a five-day work week narrows the talent pool that an employer can call on, potentially ruling out some with caring responsibilities or others who wish to pursue outside interests that could add to their value as an employee. AI also makes it easier to accommodate more varied working patterns and, through platforms like Box, allows workers to stay abreast of what's going on asynchronously rather than needing to be on hand at the same time as colleagues. AI is not only going to help us work smarter and faster — it's also going to massively change how we work. This will challenge many of the office- and document-centric assumptions that are embedded in today's enterprise business processes and how we currently think about them.

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