Salesforce's Benioff, IBM's Rometty Weigh The Responsibility Of Nurturing AI And How It Will Change The Workforce

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty told Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff Wednesday that both their companies have a tremendous responsibility, as creators of breakthrough artificial intelligence, to make sure the emerging technology has a positive impact on the world.

As the relationship between the two companies escalates rapidly—IBM wasn't even present at last year's Dreamforce—the CEOs agreed that they need to make sure the advent of AI doesn't displace human beings, and harm their ability to make a living.

"It is our job to usher that safely into this world," Rometty told attendees.

[Related: Greene Screen: Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff Gets Google Cloud Chief Diane Greene To Dish On Her Life And Career During Dreamforce Interview]

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Benioff welcomed IBM's leader to a "fireside chat" by telling her she's an inspiration to him, and especially to all of Salesforce's female executives.

"Ginni, you have become the top female CEO in the world. There's no doubt in my mind," Benioff told IBM's leader, who just arrived on an overnight flight from Brazil to the mega-conference in San Francisco.

Companies like Salesforce and IBM also have a great responsibility in handling their customers' "most-precious asset"—their data, Rometty said.

IBM is the only major tech company that can claim it has never turned over customer data to a government surveillance program, she said.

Ushering in new technology requires a deep level of personal responsibility says CEO Ginni Rometty.

To allow AI to thrive, companies that develop the technology must make transparent to the public what data their algorithms have been trained on, and who trained them.

"You can train bias," she warned.

There are many negative connotations around artificial intelligence, Rometty acknowledged. IBM in part called its Watson technology "cognitive" to sidestep associations people have with AI as a force that will displace human workers.

The purpose of the technology, however, is "to augment, and not replace, man," she said. "It will be man and machine in everything. We have to prepare the world for that. It's not a small thing."

While there's a lot of fearmongering around AI, new technologies have changed the nature of the workforce in all eras.

"Some jobs go away; new ones come," she said.

Benioff noted that Rometty, as IBM's CEO, has thought through the thorny issues around the technology, especially as far as it impacts people's jobs, possibly more than anyone else.

"I don’t think there's any company doing more for workforce development than IBM," he said.

"It begins with one word: Empathy." & CEO Ginni Rometty share philosophies on the future of work

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In a world that is starting to see "taxis without drivers, farms without farmers, airplanes without pilots," Benioff said, issues around workforce transformation are paramount.

And as businesses transform, the question, Rometty observed, becomes, "if everybody's digital, then who wins?"

The answer is in the data—primarily who can most-effectively leverage that resource. All companies have lots of data, most don’t use it well, Rometty said.

She noted that only 20 percent of the world's data is searchable. The other 80 percent belongs to the customer, and has lots of value to those who know how to access it.

For companies that figure that out, "you will make better decisions. You will be a learning organization."

The potential of leveraging data stores means there's a possibility that the current era will see a market that favors longstanding businesses.

"If you have a past, it just might be your advantage now," Rometty said.

At the same time, thanks to AI, this era will see some of the world's most difficult problems solved, particularly around health care, she said.

And for those worried about the so-called "singularity," when AI takes control of itself and creates runaway technological advances – that's still "decades and decades away."

"We know cause we're building this stuff," Rometty said. "It is far away."

Benioff got Rometty to discuss her early career, starting as an engineer in the auto industry, before her 36-year stint at IBM began.

Asked if she thought she would become CEO of this "legendary company" when she first joined Big Blue, she responded, "of course not," then countered, "Did you think you were going to run Salesforce?"

"Well, when I started it I did," was Benioff's reply, earning some laughs from the audience.

Working on trucks and buses provided an early lesson to Rometty in the difference between a job and career. She realized she needed a change, and her husband suggested she apply to IBM, where his friend's father worked and could make an introduction.

Rometty's knowledge in converting banks to Burroughs Corporation equipment helped land the job. That road led Rometty to become the ninth CEO of the 106-year-old company.

The main lesson she's learned in that time: "you have to be willing to change everything about yourself but your core values."

For CEO Ginni Rometty, values are the most essential element to your brand's success.

Benioff noted that while technologies themselves aren't good or bad, there have been a lot of stories of late about how "some of these big companies, their technology got out of control," he said, especially "around elections."

"We saw them used in some unexpected ways," he said in a reference to Twitter and Facebook being manipulated by the Russian government in an attempt to sway public opinion in the U.S. election.

Rometty said that as a technology executive, "I don’t think you can turn your back on any of that."

Other emerging technologies also have dark sides that often are unexpected, she added.

IBM is making breakthroughs in quantum computing, and that technology one day will solve problems today's computers cannot. Great advances like discovering new drugs, risk modeling, logistics will come out of that.

But within several years, quantum computers might break almost all forms of encryption currently available, she said.

"While working to build it, we're working on the antidote," she said.

IBM won't reveal what that "antidote" to quantum code-breaking will look like, but she assured the audience her company won't release something that powerful until it knows it can control its negative consequences.

The rapid advance in the relationship between IBM and Salesforce has largely been driven by IBM's acquisition of Bluewolf, one of the earliest and largest of Salesforce's systems integration partners.

Corrine Sklar, CMO of Bluewolf, told CRN that the conversation between the CEOs resonated, and the channel also has a huge role to play in presenting artificial intelligence to customers the right way.

Even if customers don't ask, "it is our responsibility to bring up those issues," Sklar said.

The Russian manipulation of Facebook is a great example, she said. Big tech companies have lots of data, but often don’t spot the problems they're not looking for.

"In our world, our responsibility with Salesforce together is to question these things and be able to have an open dialogue with our customers," Sklar said.

Salesforce customers are just starting their AI journeys, and most aren't aware yet of the difficult issues that can arise. Partners that will lead in the future are the ones "putting AI in the core of their mindset," she said.

The partnership between IBM and Salesforce that was forged only eight months ago is moving incredibly fast, and will grow beyond its current focus on artificial intelligence, Sklar predicted.

"You can see the chemistry between them. I think this partnership is only getting started," she told CRN.