Adapt or die: Is the future bright for business amidst the AI boom?

Most companies have a short lifespan before falling victim to the latest technology—this year's Fortune 500 list proves otherwise. Read More...

AI is the topic of the moment for the world’s top CEOs—and the inspiration behind Brainstorm AI London, our inaugural European AI conference.

Chaired by Fortune’s Ellie Austin and Jeremy Kahn, the conference, over the course of two days, gave us a glimpse into the future of a world powered and accelerated by AI. Transformation was the key theme throughout the sessions, with examples ranging from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10 (sketched out by the composer before his death, finished by AI) to synthetic media, the artificial creation of media by automated means—which could, according to some, see me out of a job.

On the surface, AI might seem new, but history and mythology tell a different story. As a concept, many historians and classicists trace it back as far as ancient Greece, to the story of Pandora. In the earliest texts, she’s described as an artificial, evil woman built by Hephaestus and sent to Earth to punish humans for discovering fire. Upon arrival, she opens her eponymous box and unleashes myriad plagues and problems into the world. When it comes to AI, will we repeat the same mistakes?

Today, there’s much talk of AI spreading the kind of disruption we last saw during the Industrial Revolution. At Google’s Zeitgeist conference, a recent gathering of Europe’s top CEOs, one economist stoked fear by announcing it would be the middle class who would feel the pain this time round. He predicted it will take up to 70 years for middle-class incomes to recover, just as in the first Industrial Revolution, which saw the working class waiting decades for their take-home pay to rise.

Throughout business history, it has been a case of adapt or die: Most companies last only a few decades before falling victim to the latest disruptive technology. Our Fortune 500 list, now in its 70th edition, features dozens of companies that have successfully evolved with the times. Over the decades, this ranking of America’s biggest companies by revenue has chronicled the changing face of business, from a 1950s world dominated by manufacturing to today’s focus on Big Tech, health care, and retail. Phil Wahba’s deep dive into the growing trend of corporate museums shows how companies are connecting with their history to better guide their employees’ sense of purpose for the future.

Few companies have benefited from the recent boom in generative AI as much as Microsoft, No. 13 on this year’s Fortune 500. A decade ago, the software giant from Redmond, Wash., felt dull, sluggish and far from innovative. Under Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s future has never looked brighter. As Jeremy Kahn reports from a trip following Nadella on a meet-the-customers tour of Southeast Asia, Microsoft’s latest big wager, on generative AI, is paying off richly. What drives Nadella is a constant fear of missing the next big thing, as he tells Kahn: “There is no God-given right to exist if you don’t have anything relevant.”

The ancient Greeks would have recognized Nadella’s lesson all too well: Beware hubris. In the age of AI, when any business can find itself relegated to the history books if it doesn’t adapt, it’s an important lesson for us all.

Alex Wood Morton
Executive Editor, Europe, Fortune

This article appears in the June/July 2024 Europe issue of Fortune with the headline, “AI’s coming of age.”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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