The World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of the New Champions (AMNC), held each year in China, is the foremost global gathering on science, technology and innovation. The AMNC convenes the next generation of fast-growing enterprises with world leaders from business, government, media and civil society. At this year’s gathering in Tianjin, more than 2,000 participants from 90 countries came together under the theme of “Shaping Innovative Societies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
My personal experience attending AMNC can be summed up in a few words – everyone is searching for answers to these questions:
1. Will China lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Yes, all signs point to China leading with its clarity of thought (vision) and speed of execution (conviction). The Greater Bay Area, led out of Shenzhen, is fast emerging as a compelling parallel to Silicon Valley with a complete ecosystem of capital, talent and infrastructure. Defying imitation perceptions of the past, China is placing innovation at the heart of policymaking with clear focus on new drivers of growth; the top three are:
- AI is top national priority: Officials are encouraged to foster AI infrastructure, such as sensors on roads, so that companies can develop solutions that embed digital technologies in the physical world. In addition, access to vast amounts of rich data, investments in higher education and talent, and a hyper-competitive businesses environment give China a leg up.
- Chian is one of the first countries to roll-out 5G in the coming months. With nearly 400M of 1.3B global 5G expected connections by 2025, the country is laying the foundation for leading the Internet of Things wave.
- Unlimited R&D budget to crack Quantum computing, which could simulate nature, design materials and solve complex problems in seconds.
And did I mention nearly $3 trillion in foreign reserves?
2. Will humanity survive AI and stay relevant? If politicians worldwide can understand and prioritize the need for creating a safe, legal space for transformational technology paradigms like AI—then maybe. Kersti Kaljulaid, the President of Estonia, is a beacon of hope for responsible leadership, offering digital identities for all citizens, establishing clear rules of data ownership and use, and thinking ahead about the of AI-driven crises of jobs, inequality and meaning that will occur in the coming decades. The AI revolution will be of the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution, but probably larger and definitely faster. We must come together as nations, businesses and citizens to collaborate on policies that optimize the good, such as AI finding cures, minimize the perils and nurture core human values.
3. Data: Of the people, by the people, for the people? It is tough to crack the paradox of a greater need for general data protection and access with specialized scenarios like healthcare, where finding cures for complex diseases through AI is subject to availability of data, and even across countries. U.S. policy does not seem to be catching up with technology or legislation — currently built around possession (not applicable to digital) and judicial proximity (digital is global) — making prosecution difficult. Europe’s GDPR is a good starting point, with California and New York, among others, following similar guidelines for customizing data regulations. However, the lack of globally accepted standards will make life difficult for companies operating in multiple jurisdictions. On the other hand, privacy agreements offered by technology companies also have not caught up and need to be far simpler. Ultimately, new social contracts will need to emerge to balance the needs of progress with privacy.
4. Will I have a job in the future workplace? According to Fortune, by the year 2025, robots will do half our work, while millions of new jobs will be created as a result of automation, AI and other technological innovations. The entire discussion on jobs is shifting towards how people can stay relevant in the service of a machine-dominated world. Discussions around reskilling are happening, with tough transitions ahead, whether for the truck drivers likely displaced by autonomous cars, or the 6 percent of U.S. retail workforce facing redundancy as unmanned stores start replacing traditional shopping. Those who say that delivery jobs are being created thanks to e-commerce are in for a rude awakening, with delivery by drones already going mainstream in parts of China. Even much touted data scientists are on a ticking clock of relevance. All this while our education system is woefully unprepared to shape curriculums of the future. The disruptors have an obligation to lead discussions with educators and policy makers on future of jobs and skills required for existing and new workforce to stay relevant and inspired. The alternative is an inevitable backlash. It’s really not rocket science; we just need all relevant stakeholders to come together and embrace automation, not bow to it.
5. Will trust in tech withstand the test of time? Technology does not build trust. Trust is a societal issue. That's why the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not just about technology or business; it’s about society. Society needs to build guardrails that ensure the benefits of innovation are not limited to a few. Trust underpins every relationship, and transparency is a prerequisite. Tech companies should focus on being good data custodians versus debating ownership and use. Trust in a digital sense will make or break companies and drive differentiation; it should be led from the top by CEOs. At a macro level, fear of collaboration is the biggest challenge for individuals and countries because trust in tech is a global issue. Countries need to collaborate on global cyber laws that aim at technologies of tomorrow. Today, technology as a sector is the most-trusted vertical, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, but cracks are emerging, and earning trust ahead will require companies to:
- Act with purpose;
- Take a stand on issues that speak to their values;
- Be a good neighbor; and
- Lead with transparency and ethics internally (with employees) and externally (with stakeholders at large).
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is being shaped on pillars of human curiosity as much as greed. We can’t afford to blindly pursue one, or be consumed by the other, without considering the consequences overall. How we act today as a global community will shape our collective future.
Sanjay Nair is global sector chair, Technology.