Jan 20, 2024 - Science

In Davos, divided optimism about AI

Illustration of a person wearing a suit with a hand shaped cursor over their heart and another raised in an oath-taking position

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

DAVOS, Switzerland -- The world is hurtling forward with developing AI tools and rolling out products and services. That's causing anxiety for some and excitement for others attending the World Economic Forum this week in Davos.

The big picture: The divide in optimism about AI echoes broader concerns about how innovations are implemented and the role of scientists in releasing new technologies.

  • New data released this week from the Edelman Trust Barometer found 74% of people surveyed said they equally trust scientists and peers for the truth about innovations, compared to 66% for company technical experts, 51% for CEOs and 47% for journalists.
  • But people who think new technologies are being poorly managed trust their peers more than scientists.
  • The trend is putting "innovation in peril" and rapid innovation "risks exacerbating trust issues, leading to further societal instability and political polarization," according to the report.

Driving the news: AI dominated the storefronts rented out by corporations, governments and non-profits in Davos and featured prominently in the week's programs and discussions.

  • The rush by companies to roll out AI-based products and services is in part driven by fear of getting left behind, says futurist Amy Webb, who advises companies on long-term risks. "Some don't even have a problem to solve."
  • "Trust is an obligatory adjacent phrase to AI," says Webb, the CEO of the Future Today Institute. "It doesn't mean people aren't working on it. But in this and other contexts, if the word trust isn't said, it's expected that something else, something more nefarious, is happening."

What's happening: Some AI developers highlighted how they are finding ways to build trust and transparency in their technologies.

  • ClimateGPT, a new AI tool for researchers, policymakers and business leaders, allows users to pose questions about climate change and trace the data sources for responses. Blockchain technology creates a public ledger of any changes made to the model. (More on that below.)
  • Others are bringing users into the collection of data used to train their AI models. Pittsburgh-based Gecko Robotics, which sponsored an Axios event in Davos, deploys sensors on power plants, bridges, and other key pieces of infrastructure and trains algorithms on that data along with information from experts at the site where the data was collected.
  • It creates "a system of record to understand and predict what's going to fail when to extend the use of infrastructure and ensure through both that we don't have a catastrophic failure with huge environmental impact," says Jake Loosararian, the company's founder and CEO.

But it isn't necessarily a technical fix: Gabriele Ricci, chief data and technology officer at pharmaceutical company Takeda, says the company is focused on creating an internal culture that is "looking constantly at the way we interact with customers to build trust. It's built on every single interaction."

  • "It's not a tech strategy, but a business strategy for the digital world," he says. "It's a mindset shift."

Yes, but: Not everyone in Davos was worrying about the dangers of AI. One trend came up repeatedly in discussions: the global divides in optimism about AI.

  • Trust and enthusiasm about AI tend to be higher in emerging markets in the global south, according to a survey conducted in 31 countries last year by Ipsos.
  • Those countries tend to have more young people (who the survey also found are more excited about AI than older generations).
  • "They're the ones that are building the solutions, but they're also going to be the consumers of many of these solutions," Paula Ingabire, Rwanda's minister of information, communication technology and innovation, said in a panel discussion. "[T]here's an opportunity there that we cannot risk by waiting to first close the gap around digital adoption, but rather taking it in parallel."

Between the lines: People in Africa "see AI as an opportunity to access the global knowledge system and to form an identity," says Zeblon Vilakazi, vice chancellor and principal of Wits University in Johannesburg.

  • Unlike other industrial revolutions that required a factory or other high capital costs to be in the game, this technological wave largely requires access to a device, he says. "We see it as an amazing enabler."
  • "Our biggest fear is to be left out," he says. Some AI researchers on the continent are garnering recognition for their work, but there are no African countries in the world's top 50 measured by research output, according to one index.
  • "When you're at the bleeding edge, you see dangers," Vilakazi says. "But if you are at the receiving end, all you see is opportunity."
Go deeper