Mike Walsh, futurist and founder of CEO Tomorrow, will speak at this year’s PowerXchange/TechAdvantage conference in San Antonio, Texas. An author, consultant and public speaker, his expertise spans new technologies, innovation, business leadership and organizational dynamics. Walsh sat down for an interview with NRECA’s Along Those Lines podcast to discuss how artificial intelligence will impact the electric utility industry. Below is an excerpt from that interview.

Could you start us off with a high-level look at what artificial intelligence is?

WALSH: It’s a deceptively simple question which is getting more difficult to answer with time. And that’s because AI really encompasses everything from algorithms, which have actually been around for thousands of years, to basic automation, which we’ve had for at least 50 years. And of course, it has become increasingly part and parcel of not just business, but particularly utilities and the energy space to really much more complex feats of creative cognition, whether it’s generative AI or creating works of art or original music. So you can really think of AI as encompassing everything from a simple piece of software to something that resembles the functioning of a human mind, able to make complex decisions.

Do you have a sense which industries have been farthest ahead on adopting AI?

WALSH: It really depends on the type of AI you’re talking about. You know, if you look at heavy industrials, manufacturing, logistics, life sciences, for the last decade, they’ve been investing heavily in automation, robotic process automation, machine learning in everything from a drug discovery to production, quality control, predictive maintenance. But then if you look at something like the entertainment and media industry, you would have seen other uses of AI in the use of algorithms of recommendations, the programing of people’s social media feeds, matching advertising up with publishers and audiences. So there’s really no industry, I think, where there isn’t some application of AI. But the use cases are very different. And so it doesn’t matter if you’re an energy utility or you’re a media company, a retailer or a bank. We all as human beings are knowledge workers. We have to process information and use it to make smarter decisions. But the funny twist in the end now is that to be a knowledge worker in the 21st century isn’t actually about knowing things anymore. It’s about being able to ask good questions. And that’s a real shift.

Listen to the full episode of Along Those Lines with Mike Walsh.

How do you think AI will help electric cooperatives and other utilities process and use data?

WALSH: In the last five years, we’ve gone from this idea that we need to collect lots of data and put it on a dashboard for someone to look at to how do we take that data and actually build it into a decision workflow, where increasingly human beings are supervising the decisions rather than being the ones that have to make them constantly. So part of the human’s job is not just to check that the machines are making decisions, but to actually try to design a kind of a decision environment in which they’re not having to be the ones actively making the decision at all times.

Are you more optimistic than pessimistic about the way things are going with AI?

WALSH: I’m always an optimist. It might be blind optimism, but I think sometimes it’s easy to look at any new technology and see it as a kind of a threat. It’s sort of an intrinsically human thing to see any new technology as something which is a direct threat to our livelihoods, to social order, to stability of our civilization, to try to fight it, resist it, and then eventually accept it. And I think this has been the pattern, whether it’s the printing press or electricity or computation or now AI. But eventually we make accommodations. And I think the most important thing to remember is that there’s never any kind of technological inevitability. There’s no one way this is going to play out. It’s ultimately up to us and to our institutions, to the decisions we make as a society, the values we think are important, the communities we want to protect, the world we want to live in.