Responsible AI

AI’s Success Needs Leadership Integrity, Says Retired Navy Admiral

Google’s James Manyika joined Retired Admiral William McRaven to discuss leadership and education in the age of AI

Dec 13, 2023 4 min read

Society needs to move “full speed ahead” on AI but keep “eyes wide open” to its risks, according to Ret. Admiral William McRaven.

McRaven, a four-star admiral and 37-year Navy veteran, has authored several bestselling books and served as the University of Texas Chancellor. He spoke with James Manyika, SVP of Research, Technology & Society at Google, to exchange thoughts on education, leadership and how to maximize the benefits of AI for society.

“The potential of AI and machine learning is so great that my belief is we need to go ahead – full steam ahead, recognizing we’ve got to go with our eyes wide open, recognizing there are risks out there,” McRaven said.

Manyika agreed, noting that McRaven’s years of public service provided “enormous lessons” about “leading with integrity and character” to serve the public good. In the same way, technology needs to be accountable to society.

“One of the things we're trying to do is to think about the role of technology in society,” Manyika said. “So by [partnering with] society, we're trying to take account of how does this impact society, how is it accountable to society?”

James Manyika, SVP of Research, Technology & Society at Google, discussed the societal implications of AI with Ret. Admiral William McRaven.

James Manyika, SVP of Research, Technology & Society at Google, discussed the societal implications of AI with Ret. Admiral William McRaven.

Public Institutions and Leadership in the AI Age

McRaven’s public service has shaped his view on the role of the government, public institutions and leadership across industries. Such perspective is vital as society aims to responsibly deploy AI technologies that can broadly benefit the world while mitigating risk.

Toward that end, he emphasized the importance of integrity, relating the U.S. Marine Corps’ unofficial motto, “Death Before Dishonor,” as an essential element of leadership in the age of AI.

“As you begin to look at AI, if you have leaders that don't have character, that don't have integrity, that think that the dollar is more important than the nobility of what value can be brought from AI, then you’re [only] going to get a piece of AI,” McRaven said. “That is not what we want.”

Indeed, as leaders think about the societal benefit of AI, they must also focus on addressing and mitigating potential harms.

“On the one end, [we're] trying to get at this question of ‘Could this benefit people and society in any way?’ [And a] second question [is to] try to get [to] this question of, ‘Could this be harmful in any way?’” Manyika said.

Google has systematized this approach through its AI Principles, a guiding framework that broadly asks those questions, Manyika said.

“Somewhere along the way, you're going to have to say … these are the things, the principles we think are good for society,” McRaven added. “You've got to have that debate, I think, in order to begin to frame where you're going to go.”

Investing in Education Across the Board

To help raise future leaders in both the public and private sector, society needs to invest in education across the U.S., not just at elite institutions, says McRaven.

“This has got to be a national reckoning of how we're going to fund education – both K-12 and university education – and put the money where it's going to again be spread wide enough so that even the smaller schools can take advantage of it,” McRaven said.

Manyika agreed, stressing the need to have more people studying science-based fields, across all institutions.

“How do we get both more people studying in these fields and educating people in these fields more broadly around the country?” Manyika asked “And how do we also get more [employment] mobility between public service, government and the private sector of the people who have that kind of background and training?”

If we weren't teaching the young boys and girls at an early stage to have those STEM skills, to think critically, to be exposed to other cultures, then when they get to be 20 and 30 and 40, they weren't going to be in a position to make good national security decisions.”

William McRaven, Admiral (Retired), U.S. Navy

Progress on Challenges

Seeing a future where AI propels decades of societal benefits, the two observed that we need to frame the technology as a tool to help human progress in our current challenges, and not as a substitute for ingenuity.

AI can help solve huge societal problems over the next few decades, from climate change to cancer. It’s “not that humans couldn’t figure this stuff out, but [that we might] figure it out too late,” McRaven said.

Would we figure it out too late? Or how many people were going to die, or what was going to happen to the world, before AI came along? So [for] all of those things that we would get around to at some point in time, AI will accelerate [progress] in a very positive fashion.”

William McRaven, Admiral (Retired), U.S. Navy