In the first interview in this series, which kicks off PwC’s 2018 CEO Survey, chief executive Safra Catz explains the broad culture shift brought on by AI and cloud technologies.

Since its founding in 1980, the Oracle company has been known for its prowess at innovation, for its protean array of enterprise software and database products, and for its influential leadership, starting with the three individuals at the top of the company. Founder and board chairman Larry Ellison and CEO Mark Hurd are among the most visible figures in the technology industry. In their company, it would be easy to be overlooked — but not if you’re Safra Catz.

In recent years, Catz — also Oracle’s CEO, as well as CFO and a member of the board of directors — has been one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent voices on the maturation of digital technology and its effect on global industry. This in part reflects her standing as one of the most highly placed women in business, and her experience executing Ellison’s vision for Oracle’s transformation into a cloud- and platform-oriented company. She is also credited with shifting the company’s growth strategy in 2003 from one that rarely involved mergers and acquisitions to one that has used inorganic growth to great advantage.

Catz was born in Israel and raised, after age 6, in the Boston area. Before coming to Oracle in 1999, she was an investment banker at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. In 2011, she was named co-president of Oracle, and took the CEO position in 2014. She served on the board of directors for HSBC Holdings from 2008 through 2015, and will join the Disney board in 2018. Strategy+business visited her in early December 2017, at Oracle’s headquarters in Redwood City, Calif., to discuss the challenges facing CEOs today and their changing strategic priorities.

S+B: The world seems to be crossing a threshold of digital maturation, with artificial intelligence, blockchain, sensors, and the Internet of Things all coming together. What’s the most significant aspect of this shift?
 Everything is important, but I think the most critical is the fact that AI is finally here. What is AI? It’s making decisions based on very large amounts of data. I’ve been hearing about AI for 30 years…but it was always a future promise. What’s different now? First, the underlying compute capability is so much faster, meaning systems can crunch through a deluge of data almost instantaneously. Two, the ability, through software, to manage and analyze that data is so much better.

Do you remember the days when position-sensing elevator technology came at an exorbitant price? It cost millions to put that in your building. Now, your smartphone can tell what floor you’re on. It’s measuring barometric pressure. It’s measuring if you’re standing or sitting down. Your Waze app measures not only how fast your car is traveling, and where the other cars are around you, but your acceleration and deceleration. Your watch knows your heartrate. All this technology used to be incredibly expensive. Now, you get advanced computing capability at commodity prices.

The world has seen explosions of data in the past, and each time, enterprises have tried to manage it in one way or another. But this time, it’s accompanied by much faster and more accessible computing capability. All this data is instantly rendered usable and actionable, and that creates an unprecedented opening for artificial intelligence. Of course, we have heard about AI for decades in the software industry. It was always a promise of the future. The programs were based on running rules with inputs that included far less data, and less processing power. But now, the underlying computing capability is much faster, meaning it can crunch through huge amounts of data. And the software technology is far more advanced than it was. The systems can not only augment decisions, but can make them better and faster — freeing up employees and consumers to do more interesting things. As your car drives you to work, you can be reading your briefing for your first meeting, and your car may very well be a better driver than you are. In computing, the system will see anomalies, detect security threats, and fix the problems faster than an individual could.

S+B: How does that affect the day-to-day business of a typical company?
 The main task of AI is to improve decisions. If executives have a clearer view of the patterns in the data, they can make better decisions themselves, or delegate decisions with confidence that they would otherwise have to make themselves. This represents a natural evolution for the software industry. Increased computer power leads to an ability to manage huge amounts of data simultaneously, and bring it all together. It also means increased speed: Historically, if you had to wait a long time for an answer, it was not worth asking the question. Now you get your answer quickly. And finally, scalability: If you can’t handle huge amounts of data across large distances, you can’t get a complete answer. All of this adds up to a step change in information.

S+B: Why is that important?
 Because all those effects — speed, scale, security — release resources and people to do much higher-value things. And that’s what’s happening now. We’re starting to see enormous productivity increases. I’m not sure how economists measure productivity in this country, but no one can deny that our capabilities have increased enormously.

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