In this episode of Bizcast, Columbia Business School spoke with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Professor of Leadership and Ethics Professor Bruce Kogut, who shares insights and reflections on the impact of social and traditional media, government regulation, misinformation, and new and emerging technologies on democracy.
As part of his work at CBS, Kogut helps lead the Business, AI, and Democracy program, or BAID, which is part of The Hub, Columbia Business School's new think tank that explores the most pressing issues shaping the world today. In its inaugural year, The Hub tackled the theme of business and society, and the role that business and academia play in the future of capitalism and innovation.
Watch or listen to the podcast using the links above, or read the transcript below:
CBS: Professor Bruce Kogut, thank you so much for doing this.
Professor Bruce Kogut: Thank you for inviting me.
CBS: We are here to talk about a program you help lead called BAID. BAID stands for "Business, AI, and Democracy." I want to mention, BAID is part of "The Hub," Columbia Business School's new think tank that explores the most pressing issues shaping the world today. The theme for The Hub's inaugural term is "Business and Society." It was selected because of the important role that the business world in general, and business schools in particular play in society. And The Hub currently aims to encourage fresh thinking around the future of capitalism, innovation for the betterment of society, and of course, business, AI, and democracy. So Professor Kogut, I think a very good place for us to start, is what is the mission of BAID?
Kogut: Well, thank you for asking that, that start-off question. BAID, as you know, focuses on things which are touched upon in business schools occasionally more than before, and that is of course, democracy. So you really cannot have a thriving capitalism without a strong democracy to support the institutions which make capitalism work in the first place. So we took up, seriously, the challenge that BAID should have as a mission, is to be a kind of think tank to the school. And think tanks usually have an aspect to it where people think, but they also go out there and they try to get these ideas out to people. They try to make a difference in people's lives, or in the policies which are put out. So we do both.
We have some research going on. I say "we," we're about three or four people, including Andrey Simonov, Gita Johar, Andrea Prat, myself, and a bunch of other people who are part of the group. And we then put on these events, to try to be impactful to the world, such as working with Dear Mama, which is a cafe in Manhattanville, which is a great setting. And we bring in people from around the university, and we try to explain what we do, and get their reactions to what we are thinking about.
CBS: Can you talk to us about the intersection of these three terms?
Kogut: You know democracy's a big topic. AI is already a large one. And then business on top of it. So I could lie to you and say it's just the intersection of these three. Sometimes it's more in the AI space itself, but there usually is a pretty clear link in what they do. AI, it's a catchall term, because it does pick up other technologies, which some people would say is not part of AI. But it's become kind of attached to those things, which you're relying upon, you know, advanced data technologies, which can either find data, and/or also create and generate data, texts, for example, being an example of that. And democracy is really about communication, and about a bunch of people talking to each other, and they generate a lot of texts and other things to do. So it's just kind of a happy marriage, if you wish, to have people who really know how to study, you know, natural processing languages as a technique. And they also can take democracy, and put this great new tool in our hands, to work on the topic of democracy, which we all agree is something we're very worried about.
CBS: You mentioned the events that you have. A few different ones were how to steer AI, the age of algorithms, and big data. You also have Russian media during the war, a Marshall plan for a Democratic Ukraine, the range.
Kogut: It's big.
CBS: It's big.
Kogut: Right. They said give that man a hub and he will travel. So, that's what happened. So, you understand this well. We are living in a very dynamic, sometimes difficult world right now. And there are things which come up, which again, in more, maybe more on the democracy side than on the AI side, and et cetera. So we are influenced by those issues. We were created in just a few months after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which is an autocratic dictatorship in many ways. And we felt the need to respond to that, because we were, I think still are, the primary outlet for discussions on democracy at the business school. So we picked that up. That made sense for us to do and it involves misinformation. And misinformation is just rich in the use of AI. So it also has a component of AI, which is quite important. Many people like Donnel Baird came in from BlocPower, he's a graduate from here. And he talked about his company, which is a company which is trying to bring in a greening of space here in urban cities and elsewhere. And part of that actually is AI. So those may be the less-obvious ones, why they should be involved. But I do want to point out there are some which are head on what we're actually talking about. And these are the ones you mentioned by people like Sandra Matz, who talked about polarization, or Chris Wiggins who talked about the origins of data, and how it's become increasingly more in the direction of AI, and what that, what that has meant for us.
CBS: Do you like having this wide, this ocean of ideas, and this the freedom-
Kogut: Yeah, I do. I do. I think it forces people to be richer in their thinking, more broad in their thinking, and hopefully to start thinking also, about ways we can actually make some difference to the policy implications, or the business implications.
CBS: And you and I first met in 2015, I was a student in your strategy class.
Kogut: Right. You're an excellent student, too.
CBS: I appreciate that. What made you, why is this something that you have taken on, and are helping to build?
Kogut: Well, because it really does have the things I enjoy doing. And one is, I really do enjoy working with colleagues. And I always just learned so much by doing that. So I'm not in marketing. We have two people from marketing, someone from economics, we've had someone from sociology spend a year with us. So we liked the outreach, and we've worked with other institutions on campus. So the Harriman Institute for example, or SIPA, or the Journalism School There's a limit to what you can do. I want to give you that good news. But you can do an awful lot with, when you work in partnerships, and you work with people. And it makes it exciting for ourselves, inspirational, and hopefully for the people who follow us too.
CBS: Yeah. At the time of recording, we're just a week from President Biden signing executive order on safe, secure, trustworthy, artificial intelligence.
CBS: The order calls for a society-wide effort that includes government, the private sector, academia, and civil society, in order to realize the benefits of AI, while mitigating risks. Why is it important that any governance of this technology be influenced to some degree by society as a whole?
Kogut: Columbia Business School has a really long relationship with working with various actors in society. Obviously with business, but also with government for that matter. And you can see why now it is so important. Because there's such fundamental issues coming up from so many different places. It could be things on just inclusive equity, which we talk about constantly. So that's a huge pressure in American society. Or it could be technological like AI and social media, and how do you control social media, and things on developing systems which are used in the military, but the private systems which are substituting for, what is normally done by the, by the military. So there's so many points of contact. And our students are gravitating in this direction, and of course we have to be engaged in business and society. There's also sort of a part of the cultural wars attached to it too. And it does seem like at a period of time that business, maybe 30 years ago, swung a little bit in one direction, and now it's swung back in the other direction. And maybe we're gonna go through a little period of correction. And I could see if, imagine a few happy faces about the correction part. And correction's probably always a good idea no matter what direction you go in. But we've been in that environment. So people are demanding of companies to do more. They're demanding also of us to do more. And it took us a while as a business school to do that. We probably weren’t the first ones to react, but we've done a really good job in catching up and leading in this area. And that's been a healthy thing for us to do.
CBS: Yeah, there's some conversation around the use of AI in business, and the ethical use of AI in business. Do you think that the pressure that they're feeling from their consumers, from the public, to work in an ethical way, is enough?
Kogut: I think one thing great about a democratic society, and about markets and capitalism for that matter, is that people have the freedom to choose where they want to end up working, for whom, and what kinds of people, et cetera. Now, maybe it's been a little bit irritating, that sometimes people lock into, "every firm has to act according to this code."Well, there should be some kind of moral code. Even in Milton Friedman's very famous article on the purpose of business, he said there is a set of norms, of course the law, within which the firms have to have to operate. But Friedman' did say, you know, "the norms." He didn't expect them to go out, and do horrible things. He felt there would be sort of a moral background to it, which was important. So I think it's something which is absolutely critical for us to be engaged in and to pursue. But we should be aware of the fact that right now it really is part of the cultural struggle within the US.
Maybe that's great. Time, as you know, gets a little worrisome, but we'll certainly hear more about it in the next year, in terms of how people understand various issues, which we are deeply troubled by sometimes, but also inspired by.
CBS: Those two different feelings, troubled and inspired. If we kind of think about artificial intelligence, is it, is it harmful for democracy? Is it a good thing?Is it a bad thing? Just, generally, what is your take after being a part of this?
Kogut: Well it's both. You can think about a car, or a train, or photons. They're always crashing into each other in one way or another, right? And you can do terrible things with cars. Imagine we're driving cars 40, 50, 60 years ago when the people didn't really know how to drive. Not in the very beginning, but the middle of it. Accidents were much higher in those periods of time, and so we had debates around that. We're having debates around AI in the same way. So this is the issue of governments. Now, this is where I think it's really interesting. Because I teach this class on business and solving social problems. And I did this initially, because it seemed like everyone often was split between two things, markets, or running the government to solve the problem. So the kind of business side was often left out of the whole thing, as were also things called the nonprofits and just the unions and whoever else were there. So they were looking for solutions without looking sometimes closely enough to the business side of things. And I think this is where you have to get this coordination among these various actors to make these big changes, and we should bring people into it. Now AI is the same thing. So we do see a lot of changes in AI over time, where people are picking up how it's working well, and how it's working badly. And some of this discussion may surprise people. Because engineers don't always kind of get the glory in the US the way they get it, like in France or almost everywhere else in the world. But engineers, we're so slow to pick up on ethical discussions and what they were doing. But now it's really phenomenal how engaged the engineering schools are. Because they're designing tools, which can be for the better, or be for the worst. So I do see us in this, in this BAID exercise, as designing tools for democracy, often using AI technologies. That's the kind of thing we're thinking about these days. Because we should make sure we try to make it, acting for the, for the better, rather than for the worst. And that's a design problem, which we should start off doing early rather than later. So it's up to us to take this under our control, and make sure we are making the decisions, which will lead to a better AI than one we're actually afraid of.
CBS: So, Bruce, what are you seeing? What are you hearing as part of BAID, are some of the positive use cases of AI? And what are some of the troubling areas in your, from your perspective?
Kogut: Well, I've always been deeply worried about privacy. You know, the US was not early on thinking about this as a problem. It has been dangerous. And it still is potentially dangerous. You look elsewhere in the world, they have made some progress. They led this out. Whereas the US was still dragging its feet. Now going forward, what do we learn from this? And we learn from this that having some public debate, and notice I didn't go right to the government, but some public debate around this issue, which business schools and universities in general should lead.
They should lead in terms of what the technology can't do and can do well. We can do this debate, but we have to remind ourselves here that it's okay for us to talk about the sort of moral, ethical aspects of what's being done, and also what the policy consequences might be. And not get back to a situation, where we scare people so scared by it, that the technology stops in the first place. If you allow me, I'll give you another example. There's been a lot of discussion about the substitution of people by machines. The answer to that has been going on for, you know, for 200 years and more. And it's painful for people. And that's part of the aspects of a free market. But we're not very good as a country. And it's, and very few countries are good at this, at retraining and repurposing people, particularly later in their, in their, in their career. So you go off in this direction of, "Sure, I'd like to do that, but I can't do that." So there's gotta be a different way of thinking about these problems. You just can't let people lose their job and be out of work, and get one third of the wages they had before, and say, "Well, that's all in the name of progress." It's just, I mean, it doesn't sit well with people. It doesn't sit well with me, as a solution. So there are things you can think about. And some fields are getting closer to the idea that people can learn from machines, just as machines can learn from the data which humans actually create as well. This is how a part of AI works, and from that, actually productivity goes up, maybe wages go up with that, and we have kind of a win for, for everyone.
CBS: You know, I was at a conference, and I was listening to Scott Belsky, I believe the chief strategy officer at Adobe. He was saying that creativity is the new productivity. And what AI provides workers, any creator, any individual, is the ability to take what's in their mind's eye, and actually see it.
And to be able to use that to not just have a hundred ideas, but a thousand ideas, or whatever it is, and then being able to pick and choose which of those ideas are you able to actually put into practice, and then therefore elevate the work that you're doing. And I think that's an example of, if it's used in partnership, if it's used as a tool, it's not going to broad stroke replace all of the workforce, but it's actually going to make workforces better.
Kogut: Yeah, I mean, sure. I mean, creativity is amazing. I mean, just thinking about this, we talked earlier about possible examples we can point to. So I don't know if you had a chance to see this, the Museum of Modern Art was running on this big wall in the entry, imaging coming out, you're using all the texts, et cetera, which they could find in the art and more broadly, magnificent things. But you know, it wasn't as if there was no human input. Of course, there's human input to this. And so I think creativity is an area, not always, where you can find exactly this combination of technology and people to come out to a better solution, and a more democratic one too.
CBS: So Professor Kogut, based on the conversations that you're hearing through BAID, let's talk about deep fakes, for example. You know, we talked about the great things that can happen, but now here's some of the dangerous, there's a dangerous element to it. What's the overall conversation there?
Kogut: Well, deep fakes, it goes back to the beginning of history. It probably was some cave, which was signed by some guy named Fahad, then it turns out to be the cave next door, which was the original. So, this comes to, I think to the issues of what's happening in Hollywood, and elsewhere. And so Hollywood used to say there's like 10 kinds of scripts you can write, like, boy leaves girl, girl leaves boy, et cetera. And so very basic kind of, kind of stuff. Well, AI I guess, has no problem doing that. Maybe it even has a list that has a hundred things that they work on.
So people are concerned. The good news is that, since we're dealing with digital data, we can also do things, which will be able to stamp it a little bit better. For example, blockchain maybe, which is a digital way of just having a ledger and saying, that I sold you a car, and you paid me for the car, but also can be done for writing as well. You can blockchain, which means that later on, if someone says, "Hey, I'm gonna sue the hell out of you." Being Hollywood, of course, that has to happen eventually. And they go back and they have the original there, and then you can compare it to what someone else was producing.
CBS: The website for BAID, there's the following quote right at the top, "This democracy is widely believed to be necessary for the sustainability of markets that encourage investment and innovation to achieve private and social objectives." Underneath that, it says, what seems to be, the statement is reading: "Surprisingly then, as political polling shows, democracies are living in a moment of crisis. Business is not isolated from these trends." If trust is lost in democracy, and there's arguments to be made that it has been, or it is, can markets survive? Can society survive? And that's a, that's a huge question, so don't expect you to have the answer, but-
Kogut: I’m smiling because certainly, BAID is a big bracket already, like, The Great Lakes. But it's a good question all the same. And that's what's fun about having to think about these issues. So, notice that with the quotation, and thank you for reading that. It talks about public, well, private and public, and also talks about differences between economic and social aspects. And that didn't say governments necessarily. And I, and this is where we would get into a huge fight with people on this matter particularly. Because there still are a lot of people who do believe in our 1930s regulatory system, which you can do more, but I'm not sure that's what people want now in terms of what the majority wants. And it should always be for the protection of minorities as you know. But there's a majority issue. And normally I'm so sure it's actually needed the way it was before. Because people can be better informed about those things, which they really care about. Again, there's this matching of interest. So, it could be different forums for taking care of different kinds of problems, rather than everything going to the government itself. And for many things, that would make me feel a lot more comfortable. Because I don't know if politicians have the time, they don't, whether they read it, and they probably don't read it. Most of the stuff they do, Whether they write it, they don't write most of the stuff they do. They're out politicking, you as politicians do. And that's a worthwhile thing to happen. But you just better pray that those staffers are good and those lobbyists are not so good, and all that kind of stuff. So I think there is an aspect, where again, you have to think about, what are the problems, what are the aspirations? And try to think through, well how would you then try to use what you have at hand, or may have to solve these particular problems. When McKinsey walks into a client, into a problem, they always ask themselves, "So who is the client?" Right? And I think sometimes people, we walk into things, and we don't ask the question, "So what's the problem?"
And the problem with democracy may not be just Washington. This is an easy case to make perhaps, but maybe it has to do a little bit with the population as well. Why are we not more engaged as we get larger, and countries get larger and cities get larger? How do you get your voice heard? How do you get the response? So that's what we have to work out, and that's what we, and it's happening in many ways, sometimes not involving a lot of technology, sometimes actually involving exactly the things we have been talking through. And it's just super exciting, and interesting and I think that in the future, this will be part of what we see.
CBS: And if you think about the future, maybe your legacy with BAID, what do you hope is the problem that BAID solved?
Kogut: I think that this is a short time to be in existence. And we were the first generation of the hubs. So we were kinda running into walls at first, but we all knew that experience in life. But then we got through with a lot of good people helping us out. And that's been great. But I think what we've been good at doing, is building up a set of research, which takes a little longer to happen than people realize. We work really well as a group. We actually did have experience working before as a group, because we did something over at the Journalism School, on some of these issues all that helps. But I think what we really are trying to create is platforms with an S of how we can create multiple venues for people to meet and come together. We'll maybe start it out with some ideas and what we're doing, and also very aware of defending research. I sometimes I feel like we cave in sometimes too much in these situations. And showing how we can collectively solve these problems and move forward. So I think that's the legacy is, these platforms and communication, a greater confidence that we can have, a excellent quality discussion with multiple actors, diverse backgrounds of people, and do it in the public light.
CBS: Bruce, I want to maybe ask you, a lot of the things that you're talking about, are polarizing to some degree. How is it that you all are protecting the conversations, the ability for people to share their ideas in the spirit of The Hub?
Kogut: I think does it go back to trust. You have to establish trust among each other that you can speak openly and et cetera. I mean look, cultures differ across countries. It also differs across schools, and industries, and all that kind of stuff. So, you walk into again, to choose Hollywood, people yell at each other from what I can understand. They get you or they have pretty serious arguments because they have different ideas and views, and they have kind of artistic and engagement in the whole thing. Well people are surprisingly passionate about the work which they do. And people in academics, they also argue about that. And lawyers argue about that clearly, and other fields do. So when people get close to what is meaningful to them, then they begin to speak up. Now will they speak up in front of a public audience? And that's what we have to kind of create in this environment. It's easy to learn, you know, what your algorithm is, and what my algorithm is. It's really hard to learn what's your world perspective, and how to engage that and have a conversation with that. So we have to do that as a society, to respect these different perspectives, and these different voices which come into play, feel confident enough in what we want and yet, and have a dialogue go forward. But what we can do is develop greater tolerance to have that discussion. So people walk away saying I heard Bruce speak and I thought he was entirely wrong, but I get what he was saying. So-
CBS: By listening.
Kogut: By listening, engagement, but really engaging each other. And we all know that emotions matter a lot to this, to engagement. So you have to be willing to take that all in. Not every moment of your life. But that should be part of the experience inside of schools. We all know the best teachers of people who usually who have moved you some somewhere along the way. So it sticks in your mind. Now, if the students will only remember the name of the professor who did that, that'd be great. But that's true in general.
CBS: Well, maybe we'll end on that, this optimistic feeling, you're an optimistic guy. We're an optimistic show.
Kogut: Yeah. I believe in optimism too.
CBS: Yeah. And what, so what excites you about the intersection of business, AI, and democracy?
Kogut: I like learning things. Probably more than people think is a good thing to do. I spent a lot of time just working through what AI does, when the doors are closed and you have to, work with it. But I also think about these other issues. There's a language about alignment, and about, fairness, which, which comes up with explainability, all these terms which come up. And they're very interesting to follow through. So part of me just enjoys learning that kind of stuff. But I also think, as an optimist, that we have the ability to collectively solve problems. Sometimes a person stands up there and says, I did this, and we have to do this when we're running for election, or we're selling ourselves for a job, or whatever. But I think, creativity more so than ever, and probably, maybe it's always been true, it's just people coming together, and sharing their ideas for a collective good. Hopefully a collective good, it makes it impactful on, on the people who need it the most. And I think it's good to think about those issues, and I'm always excited by that.
CBS: Well, Professor Kogut, thank you very much.
Kogut: Thank you very much, Fahad. Appreciate being here.
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