Jan 19, 2024 - Technology

At Davos, businesses look to move from talk to action on AI

Accenture CEO Julie Sweet gives Axios a sneak peek at the generative Ai bootcamp it planned for Davos.

Accenture CEO Julie Sweet gives Axios a sneak peek at the generative Ai bootcamp at Davos. Image: Accenture

Artificial intelligence was once again the biggest topic at the World Economic Forum, but this year's conversation was much more focused on tangible action.

Why it matters: Boards are pressing their CEOs to have a strategy for incorporating AI throughout the business even as many executives are still grappling with where to start.

In the past year, AI conversations at Davos evolved from "check out the speech I wrote with ChatGPT" to far more nuanced discussions around how generative AI could increase productivity and allow businesses to expand into new areas.

  • Sensing the business opportunity, tech firms and consultants filled the storefronts on the main promenade in Davos, pledging their help.
  • "The future is AI," Tata Consultancy Services reminded passersby, while Builder.ai promised "software at the speed of thought."
  • Other pithy catchphrases and slogans filled the windows of the ski-rental shops and retail outlets that firms had taken over for the week.

Zoom in: Accenture scrapped its usual Davos game plan of back-to-back, one-on-one meetings in favor of a generative AI bootcamp, conducted personally by CEO Julie Sweet and her top tech deputies throughout the week.

  • Axios got a sneak peek of the bootcamp (Accenture prefers the term "workshop") on Monday.
  • The 45-minute session outlined the risks and possibilities of generative AI, featured case studies and identified the types of roles most likely to disappear as well as the new jobs that are likely to be created.
  • More than 150 people had signed up for the sessions ahead of Davos, including a number of CEOs and heads of state.

The big picture: AI executives, including OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, were in high demand, appearing in official Davos sessions as well as numerous side events hosted by various companies.

  • Altman, a first-timer in Davos, spoke at Microsoft and Salesforce events, in addition to onstage media interviews with Axios and Bloomberg.

What they're saying: Aidan Gomez, CEO of Cohere, told Axios that many of the businesses he works with are moving beyond the proof-of-concept stage.

  • "This year is when I think that take-off happens," Gomez said, adding that the shift means factoring in new considerations around cost, scalability, efficiency and latency, not to mention safety and privacy. While considereding these factors is important, Gomez said, companies should not to be guided by fear.
  • "You can get stuck in a testing death trap where you're just constantly doing these little experiments that never make it out," he said in an interview.

Between the lines: Transforming a business requires both technical components and people skills. Accenture says its research found that only about 10% of companies have all those needed pieces, with 90% lacking either the data structure or a skills-based HR system ready to handle rapid change.

  • Qualcomm marketing chief Don McGuire spoke at an Axios event about several of the generative AI tools his company is using, including GitHub for coding and a pair of chatbots: one trained only on internal data and another from Microsoft that also brings in outside knowledge.
  • McGuire also highlighted the power of Adobe Firefly for generating images, and Writer, a tool he said not only helps draft marketing copy but is shortening the process of creating new product names from months to weeks.

Yes, but: Even companies that aren't ready to completely change their business can still get started on a number of useful projects. One logical first step for many businesses, Sweet said, is using the AI features in tools they already use, such as Salesforce or Microsoft 365.

  • "You learn more by doing," Sweet said. "You've got to find a way to start equipping your people so that when these other things come online, they're ready."

The bottom line: Executives brimmed with optimism that AI will do everything from addressing a shortage of skilled workers to boosting global GDP.

  • "I'm actually very bullish about some of the possibilities for significantly improving productivity much faster than we might have thought," Stanford economist Erik Brynjolfsson said in an interview at Axios House in Davos.
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