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CEO confidence in artificial intelligence tempered by social, ethical and security risks

  • 65% of respondents see AI as a force for driving business efficiency – but also fear unintended consequences

  • 88% are integrating AI into capital allocation, almost half plan significant AI investments in the next year

  • M&A to rebound into 2024 – 71% of CEOs using AI to strengthen deal strategies


CEOs globally are embracing opportunities created by AI, but also remain wary of unknown, unintended consequences, according to the findings of the latest EY CEO Outlook Pulse survey. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of CEOs agree that AI is a force for good; however, a near equal proportion say more work is needed to address social, ethical and security risks – from cyberattacks to disinformation and deepfakes.


The survey of 1,200 global CEOs, which provides insights on AI, capital allocation, investment, sustainability and transformation strategies, found that 66% of CEOs believe the impact of AI replacing humans in the workforce will be counterbalanced by new roles and career opportunities that the technology creates.


However, while CEOs embrace the potential upsides AI can bring for business and society, they are cognizant of the risks of the emerging technology. Two-thirds (67%) of CEOs said that the business community needs to focus on the ethical implications of AI, while almost the same proportion (64%) say businesses are not doing enough to manage the unintended consequences of the technology.

Despite these concerns, CEOs are adapting investment strategies to maximize the benefits that AI could bring to their businesses. A significant majority of CEOs (88%) are integrating AI into their capital allocation, of which, 43% are actively investing in the technology, while the other 45% said they are planning to make significant investments in AI in the next 12 months.


Andrea Guerzoni, EY Global Vice Chair – Strategy and Transactions, says:

"CEO concerns about the unintended consequences of AI reflect a broader confluence of – sometimes dystopian - views in media, society, and contemporary culture. They see a role for business leaders to address these fears – an opportunity to engage on the ethical implications of AI and how its use could impact key areas of our lives, such as privacy. CEOs clearly see the huge advantages of AI and its potential to drive productivity and positive outcomes for all stakeholders, which has galvanized investment in AI-driven innovation – they know that bold actions to harness the upside potential will lead to future competitive advantage.”


Economic instability remains; sustainability initiatives at a crossroads


Despite ongoing macroeconomic volatility, CEOs are cautiously more optimistic regarding a global economic downturn than at the start of 2023, as only 33% of CEOs expect a severe temporary or persistent downturn, compared to 50% in January. But CEOs remain split on whether they are more optimistic (47%) or less optimistic (36%) about the outlook for their own company’s financial performance than they were six months ago.


The harsh realities of today’s low-growth, high-inflation and rising interest rate environment has compelled many CEOs to focus more sharply on near-term performance, particularly at the expense of sustainability goals.


Today, just 38% of CEOs stated that they would prioritize sustainability issues when making capital allocations decisions. This is in contrast to the CEO Outlook of January 2022, when 83% of CEOs said that sustainability and ESG issues would be an important driver of growth in the near-to-mid-term.

Guerzoni adds: “Today’s uncertain macroeconomic environment has led CEOs to be more focused on near-term performance – even if that comes at the expense of longer-term sustainability initiatives. Many CEOs will have already integrated sustainability into long-term investment strategies but regardless of prioritization, CEOs will need to meet stakeholder sustainability demands. That requires new ways of delivering and communicating strategic performance across nonfinancial and financial metrics to bridge any gap with stakeholder expectations and align with increasing regulation.”


M&A to rebound into 2024


Dealmaking remains a priority for CEOs. Nearly all (98%) of CEOs expect to actively pursue a strategic transaction in the next 12 months (up from 89% in January 2023), with 59% looking to M&A, 47% looking to divest and 63% looking to enter strategic alliances or joint ventures. The appetite to acquire is close to a record high but barriers to doing deals in the current market such increasing regulation and a higher cost of capital will likely temper many of these plans.


Improving technology capabilities and innovation is a primary driver of M&A, with 16% of respondents stating that this a primary investment goal. Furthermore, CEOs are incorporating AI in M&A strategies – leveraging these technologies in their deal sourcing and processing. Seventy-one per cent are incorporating AI into the transaction process, either significantly or through pilot programs. Only a tiny cohort (5%) have no plans to use AI – and they risk being outmanoeuvred by the competition.

Guerzoni says: “Despite economic headwinds, accelerating technology innovation and continued disruption, CEOs want to get on the offensive and many are looking at deals to make that happen.


“The future of M&A dealmaking means significantly more information needs to be captured, processed, analyzed, and interpreted than ever before. Traditional means are no longer effective in delivering a competitive edge. AI capabilities, deployed correctly, may be the key to unlocking even more value through M&A.”


 

To read the full report, please visit: ey.com/CEOOutlook.

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