Key takeaways

  • This year’s Davos event was focused on the impact of globalisation and a world increasingly infiltrated by machines.
  • The ethics of artificial intelligence drove debate more broadly about democracy and social freedoms.
  • Technology is bound closely to the concept of trust – and businesses were urged to tackle the issue “head on”.

The start of a new year is usually a time of refreshed perspectives, hopeful resolutions and eager planning. At Davos last week, however, the outlook was much more restrained. The general focus – when it comes to technology, at least – was more on how to safely rein in the oncoming tide of change, and less on propelling things forward.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting is billed as a chance to define and shape major global agenda items. But with over 3,000 political, business, and societal leaders convening over just four days, it is typically a place to air concerns, rather than solve them.

Titled “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, this year’s forum exuded a sentiment of anxiety, typically unfamiliar when technology leaders gather under one roof. The ‘art of the possible’ – once a rallying cry for digital transformation – is now being met with the urgent need to erect the right architecture for a sustainable, ethical future.

I’ve talked about the fourth industrial revolution before. Also known as Industry 4.0, the term – which was coined by WEF – refers to our present era of ‘cyber-physical systems’ – that is, the merging of the capabilities of both human and machine. Such technological advancement has consequences, and the anxiety of dealing with those consequences seems to be running high. Many speakers, from Apple’s CEO Tim Cook (making his Davos debut), to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, raised concerns about an increasingly globalised, digital future.

Here, we look at the major notes of caution that emerged from Davos 2019:  

Not everyone agrees
on the ethics of AI

  • The number one concern relating to technology was the expected oligopolistic control of artificial intelligence.
  • The ethics of AI raised broader philosophical debates on the future of democracy. Artificial intelligence in the hands of authoritarian regimes was cited as a “mortal threat to open societies”1, by philanthropist George Soros, who argued that AI and machine learning could be used as “instruments of control”. He cited the example of China’s upcoming ‘social credit system’, which seeks to use algorithms to evaluate an individual’s trustworthiness in the eyes of the state.   
  • Vice President of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Qishan, fought back in his speech, saying that “it is imperative to respect national sovereignty and refrain from seeking technological hegemony.”2  His response made it clear that China has no plans to back away from its desire to use citizen data, despite receiving criticism at WEF. He added: “We need to respect the independent choices of model of technology management and of public policies made by countries, and their right to participate in the global technological governance system as equals.”

We need a global approach
to technological governance

  • In our increasingly globalised world, who really has the power to regulate? How can we ensure that technology is helping us move towards a co-created utopia rather than one powerful country’s idea of dystopia? Time and again, world leaders called for more regulation of data and its use.3
  • Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for instance, said a focus of his country’s chairmanship of the G20 this year would be to advocate for a set of international guidelines for how data is used.
  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, in a separate dialogue session on the same day, said: “As creators of AI, we need to have some principles that govern AI.”4
  • Angela Merkel cited a need for the European Union to have a “common digital market.”5
  • There was broad consensus on the need for governance and action, but little in the way of what approach to take.
  • Some official sessions tried to put a positive spin on the effects of technological advances, but such optimism seemed at odds with the general public sentiment and declining trust in institutions.

Governments and private sectors
should cooperate when it comes to tech

  • In a spin-off from the debate around the ethics of AI, it was agreed that collaboration between governments and private sector is essential in tackling job insecurity. Abidali Neemuchwala, CEO of IT Services company Wipro, argued for such collaboration to aid “reskilling of the workers so that we address the anxiety that comes with Globalization 4.0.”6
  • Globally, mistrust in governments and the private sector is rising. This is mostly a response to the concern caused by AI’s perceived impact on jobs and people. Citizens want assurance that a plan is in place to secure the prospects of future generations.

Technology has eroded trust,
rather than built it

  • The topic of trust was front and centre for much of the event.
  • Trust, however, was no longer a vague concept thrown around. The tech industry has been under intense scrutiny following a series of data misuse scandals, with Salesforce founder Marc Benioff suggesting that the optimism of social networks from a few years ago is now being met with skepticism and a lack of trust – evident in declining users of social networks. He urged companies to prioritise trust as the principle of most importance.7
  • Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, urged leaders to to deal “head on” with trust given the severity of consequences for business if it is lost. She suggested proceeding with caution because misuses of data have previously derailed the digital economy.8
  • Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, also acknowledged that her company needed to earn back the trust of the public.9

Davos 2019 seemed to reflect a wider uncertainty in the world about what to do with technology. However, despite global anxieties, we can draw some comfort from the knowledge that we’re not alone.

As you explore ‘the art of the possible’ across your organisation today, it may be worth taking a lesson out of the diaries of global leaders: invest earlier to solve the very mistakes they feel blindsided by, from understanding the organisational and ethical implications of technology, to building trust with your customers through turbulent times.

Follow more content from Davos 2019 here – including the launch of PwC’s Global CEO Survey.



Gulandam Khan

Gulandam Khan is a manager in PwC Australia’s Experience and Insights Consulting practice.

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