World Economy Forum

Talking about the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” with Nicholas Davis, Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum.

From neurotechnics to DNA editing, from self-guided vehicles to intelligent robots. Technological development is about to radically change our lives and our identity as human beings. An evolution that will need to be adjusted in order to release all its positive potential and not to increase inequalities. 

We talked with Nicholas Davis, a member of the executive committee and head of the Society section and innovation of the World Economic Forum.

It is a no profit organization that since 1971 promotes public co-operation and stimulates economic debate with the Davos forum.

In many fields AI systems and automation are going to be more and more pervasive. How can governments and enterprises balance the relationship between man and technology?

There are four important guiding principles for ensuring that emerging technologies particularly those related to AI and automated systems, support a balanced relationship between people and technologies.

The first is to look beyond the technology itself to the way it influences the systems that surround us. Rather than focus on self-driving vehicles, we should look to the potential impact on mobility systems, on congestion, the use of space and economic opportunities.

The second is to remember that new technologies are not external forces. They are the result of human decisions and designs. So we can shape how they impact us if we take the time to discuss and work together.

The third is to look for opportunities for technologies to empower people, rather than determine them.

And finally, the fourth principle is to acknowledge that all technologies have human values built into them in different ways – and we should therefore look to make these values positive features of the system that lead to better outcomes, rather than seeing ethics and values as “costs”.


How can research and institutions such as the WEF help politics to be more far-sighted and long term operating?

Organisations such as the Forum can spur long-term thinking just by raising the critical questions that face all of us, but which are often hard to discuss without the benefit of multiple perspectives and expert input.

The Forum is neutral, impartial and beholden to no political interests so this enables us to convene stakeholders from all sectors and viewpoints to think beyond short-term interests and find ways to work with one another across disciplines, across industries and between government, business and civil society.

Massive automation and AI systems will spread wellbeing or inequality?

Depending on how the systems are designed and deployed, AI and automation on a wide scale could result in either or both. The experience of the third Industrial Revolution – the digital revolution – suggests that both are possible at the same time: automated systems can increase total wellbeing, but the gains may be concentrated in a small group of individuals and organisations who own the platforms or can use the new tools to their greatest advantage.

Indeed, the combination of private AIs and private sources of data (such as from social media feeds) could provide significant competitive advantage to a small number of centralised players. A world where AIs are making decisions also raises interesting and increasingly critical questions for the structure and enforcement of competition law – how do you prevent AIs from colluding with one another and disadvantaging consumers?


Italy’s main assets are culture and creativity.  How will the cultural industry be affected by the fourth industrial revolution?

The cultural industry will become more important in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We will rely ever more on design and cultural artefacts to understand the technologies that surround us. Which means that art, film, sculpture, television and mixed media will become more influential.

We also need designers and artists to create entirely new worlds in virtual and augmented reality – while AI systems can come up with automatically-generated objects and spaces, I believe that, as our digital surroundings become more accessible and detailed, there will be rising demand for custom-designed environments created by people for people.

The continued rise of virtual environments mean that we will also come to value more the cultural assets, real experiences and high-quality, carefully-crafted goods that a country like Italy possesses and produces.


What can Italy and Mediterranean countries do to be more competitive in the future global landscape?

As with all countries, Italy and the Mediterranean countries need to invest in people as well as technology. People are more, not less, important as technology becomes more powerful as more tasks are automated, interpersonal and creative skills rise in value. This means that countries should focus not just on increasing a population’s technical capabilities but developing the skills to enable current and future generations of Italians and Mediterranean citizens to communicate, collaborate, exchange ideas, build things and work with one another in a values-driven way.

Nicholas Davis, Head of Society and Innovation, Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum.