By Jeremy Jurgens, World Economic Forum
- Contrary to the hype, the more robust discussions around artificial intelligence (AI) and emerging tech revealed a notable convergence of viewpoints.
- There were also serious conversations around other key issues: the digital divide, the coming quantum economy, space technology and climate change, and the development of sector-specific regulation around AI governance.
- The focus should now be on a conscious approach to AI – it’s application across sectors and its interface with other technologies – and an unwavering commitment to putting people first.
At the heart of discussions around technology at Davos 2024 was a growing recognition that AI’s future should not be confined to extremes. You may also be surprised to read that conversations were not exclusively about AI.
Contrary to the hype, the more robust discussions revealed a notable convergence of viewpoints on a broader range of topics. Despite a tendency in the retelling to pit extreme existential risk against immediate revolutionary change, away from the spotlight, it became apparent that the narrative is shifting towards a more nuanced understanding, particularly regarding governance and regulation.
Technology leaders acknowledged the temporal aspect of this and agreed that while there may be disruption, there is time for deliberate adaptation. The focus should now be on a conscious approach, with an unwavering commitment to putting people first in this transformative process.
Moreover, this more sophisticated trajectory, distinguishing between different models and applications in generative AI, can draw from existing regulations. The key will be to use these frameworks in finance, healthcare, aviation etc. and tailor them to the specific characteristics of AI – among and across other innovations – in each respective sector.
So, while AI has captured the zeitgeist – at Davos 2024 and beyond – here are five takeaways from the more serious discussions on the ground that offer a meaningful lens to understand the real narrative around technology and the next steps.
1. Much of the world is still analogue and disconnected
Despite the time we spend on our screens, we tend to forget that we live in a physical world that occasionally interacts with the digital. It is an intricately complex process to scale up these interfaces to a level that fundamentally changes how we live and work. That will take time. This understanding, that not everything can be immediately and seamlessly replaced by technological counterparts, challenges the more simplistic narratives.
Equally, across technologies, equitable access remains a challenge. The Forum’s EDISON Alliance convenes actors from the telecoms and broader information, communication and technology industry with members of healthcare, financial services, education, and the investment community to foster digital inclusion.
At Davos 2024, the alliance announced its significant progress in closing the digital divide. As of January 2024, Alliance partners have improved the lives of 784 million people through 320 initiatives across 127 countries, more than 75% towards its 2025 target. We also launched an impact report highlighting the progress made and the critical need for continued commitment to achieving universal digital inclusion as a fundamental enabler of the Sustainable Development Goals.
2. We need to prepare for the coming quantum economy
While we refer to quantum computing as an emerging technology, many applications within the quantum economy have already arrived, including sensing, navigation and communications. It can be expected to have an even more significant impact on the global economy by 2030 at the latest, in ways comparable to AI. Businesses and governments can start acting now to ensure a skilled and highly interdisciplinary workforce.
“A combination of highly skilled vocational people and engineers can be incredibly powerful. But we need to start now,” said Joël Mesot, president of ETH Zurich, in a session on quantum technology.
Quantum computing will not be developed in a silo.
“If we create the ecosystem of developers in order to drive the applications that are going to benefit from these computers, then we start to create an industry around quantum,” said Ana Paula Assis, chairman of the Europe, Middle East and Africa division at IBM. We asked how AI could interface with quantum computing and how decision-makers can learn from current discussions on AI to prepare for the coming quantum economy.
During the week, the Forum released a blueprint guide for policymakers, industry and academia to build a quantum ecosystem to deliver benefits for all. Jack Hidary, chief executive officer of SandboxAQ, remarked, “We cannot accept that there will be a quantum divide the way we had a digital divide.”
3. Space technology is critical for planet earth
The top four global risks over the next 10 years are related to climate change. The technologies of the fourth industrial revolution can be used to tackle these risks. In particular, they play an important role in space technology. William Marshall, co-founder and chief executive officer of Planet Labs PBC, noted how earth imaging systems produce revolutionary data that will enable us to transition to a sustainable economy.
The applications extend from tracking deforestation to natural disaster anticipation and response. Adding in AI magnifies these capabilities and allows for powerful future scenario simulations.
“We can combine AI with earth-system models together with high-performance computing to simulate certain situations and climate risks,” said Josef Aschbacher, director-general of the European Space Agency.
There was also a discussion about sustainability in space itself, which is essential given that by 2030, 1.7 million satellites are expected to be in space. Fortunately, frameworks and agencies, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), have proven effective in managing things in space.
“An important outcome on space sustainability was reached this year that looks at deorbiting and disposal strategies,” said ITU’s secretary-general, Doreen Bogdan-Martin. Significant progress still needs to be made, however, particularly regarding enforcement and rethinking capacities in space.
Space-faring entities must consider efficiencies in cost and impact.
“There is a basic economics input that is missing that is not tied towards sustainability,” said Guru Gowrappan, president of ViaSat Inc.
In the session Taming Competition in Low and High Orbit, speakers agreed that there should be sustainability criteria for launching satellites and binding principles prohibiting anti-satellite tests that create additional debris in space. These frameworks have the additional function of ensuring that all countries can leverage space capabilities. All parties agree that global cooperation and exchange is a must.
4. AI will help us to prioritize our humanity
AI is already transforming industries from healthcare to manufacturing and creating new pathways to deliver education and public services.
“AI allows humans to access better tools and more capabilities than ever before,” said Sam Altman, chief executive officer of OpenAI.
Embarking on a new frontier, we have initiated an impactful Women’s Health Initiative. Backed by the understanding that improving healthcare for women can contribute $1 trillion to the global economy by 2050, this initiative holds tremendous promise.
The transformative use of AI in healthcare is illustrated by scenarios where AI enhances efficiency and facilitates more empathetic interactions between medical professionals and patients. There is potential for more personalized solutions, especially when coupled with the intersection of AI with other technologies such as quantum.
As we kick off this new project, I am eager to witness our progress. The potential 1.7% improvement in global gross domestic product through basic measures underscores the far-reaching implications of our collective efforts.
5. Continuous dialogue will deliver the benefits
The need for nuance beyond polarized narratives was an overarching sentiment as leaders called for measured, thoughtful and inclusive conversations that consider the intricate interplay between technology, governance and societal well-being.
Only coordinated governance can ensure that AI delivers benefits inclusively and ethically, especially during heightened geopolitical instability. There was notable resolve in ensuring that these technologies advance our capabilities and are harnessed to address some of the most pressing challenges of our times, such as climate change and digital inequality.
The Forum’s AI Governance Alliance unveiled three new publications that can guide policymakers and business leaders through responsible and equitable AI development, application and governance. Given the pace of technological advancements, the key to achieving this will be continuous public-private dialogues. The concept of “agile governance” and an ongoing, adaptive conversation that evolves with the technology will be critical.
To meet the challenge, the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues to expand its work. This year, it announced opening of three new centres in Germany, Qatar, and Vietnam, with a signed letter of intent to launch a centre in Ukraine. These collaborative agreements mark a significant stride toward global cooperation.
Whether it’s GovTech initiatives with Germany, exploring AI applications in manufacturing with Vietnam or extending the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution to citizens in Qatar, these partnerships emphasize the power of shared knowledge. The expansion of our centres signifies a commitment to fostering international collaboration, recognizing that collectively, we can push the boundaries of technological advancement.
So, while AI was the buzzword at Davos 2024, the real story addresses digital inclusion, the potential of quantum and space technology, the transformative opportunity of AI in healthcare, and the serious strides in global collaboration on governance and setting the right guardrails. These endeavours not only showcase positive global impact but also reflect a steadfast commitment to leveraging innovation for the betterment of humanity. The journey continues and I look forward to seeing the evolution of technology as a force for positive change in 2024.
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