The World Economic Forum proclaims to be committed to improving the state of the world.
At this year’s Davos gathering, the 50th in its history, the organisers had to admit that something went wrong.
Despite its perennial efforts to bring people together and strive for progress, the WEF diagnosed the “erosion of the international solidarity that forms the foundation of our global governance”.
The new geopolitical reality is the increasing absence of political and societal cohesion that would enable a collaboration amongst global stakeholders on climate change, sustainable development, and economic inclusion.
The WEF sees itself as a platform where stakeholders can work together more effectively “to exercise leadership from within the systems that collectively shape our future”.
Yet the main platform was given to a man like Donald Trump, whose address sounded more like a campaign speech.
By laying out his America-First ideology and rattling off perceived domestic economic accomplishments, Trump wasn’t even trying to engage with the global audience.
As a result, Trump’s speech could hardly be seen as an intellectual contribution to the conversations on the major global issues on the Davos agenda: the conflict over the future of capitalism, the future of technology and, above all, the future of the planet.
Besides generating the usual news headlines following his speech, the US president left no mark on the work of the conference.
One attendee even called the speech ‘irrelevant’ – a view, it seemed, widely shared by the Davos crowd.
It’s a pity that Trump’s presence (and the perceived ready-for-TV competition with Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg) turned the attention away from numerous excellent panels where participants genuinely tried to take stock of current trends that are already shaping our societies – one way or the other.
One of the most fascinating topics at the Forum – generating far fewer headlines than Trump’s flying visit – was artificial intelligence, the importance of which for our future cannot be underestimated.
AI is everywhere around us: autonomous transportation, robots at work, machine cooperation and coordination, intelligence augmentation.
Is the world doing enough in terms of AI safety and security standards, AI ethics, and AI education and awareness?
As Google CEO Sundar Pichai put it: “The biggest risk with AI may be failing to work on it and make more progress because it can impact on billions of people”.
The Israeli historian Yuval Harari issued an even more blistering warning to the Davos audience: “Technology and AI might disrupt human society and the very meaning of human life in numerous ways, ranging from the creation of a global ‘useless’ class to the rise of data colonialism and of digital dictatorships”, he said.
Due to automation, old jobs will disappear and new jobs will emerge. But then the new jobs will rapidly change and vanish as well.
“The automation revolution will not be a single watershed event following which the job market will settle down, into a new equilibrium”, Harari said.
Rather, it would be a cascade of even bigger disruptions, because AI is nowhere near its full potential.
As a result, the world might face upheaval on the social and economic level. Probably on a bigger scale than we have seen so far with the rise of populism in many societies.
An even worse threat is the rise of digital dictatorships, which utilise the power of AI and surveillance technology to monitor everyone all the time.
Even if we prevent the rise of such digital dictatorships, authority might increasingly shift from humans to algorithms, so that humans might lose control of their lives, or even lose their ability to understand the world around them.
Harari: “Already today billions of people trust the Facebook algorithm to tell us what is new, the Google algorithm tells us what is true, Netflix tells us what to watch, and the Amazon and Alibaba algorithms tell us what to buy”.
So, is it possible to build trust in artificial intelligence?
The public has doubts. A recent Pega study amongst 6,000 consumers from North America, Europa, Australia, and Japan found out that less than half of respondents believe AI can improve their lives.
Human interaction is still preferred over AI.
At the WEF, Singapore – an early adopter of AI – launched a guide for companies that adopt artificial intelligence to do so in a responsible and ethical manner.
Two broad principles are that decisions made by AI should be explainable, transparent, and fair – and that AI systems, robots, and decisions should be human-centric.
“The more governments and countries share with one another and learn from one another, the better the opportunities for them to benefit and move together”, Microsoft president Brad Smith said at a Davos roundtable.
Sounds like a perfect example of what the World Economic Forum is committed to: improving the state of the world.
Chances are that Trump would not want anything to do with it.
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