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The insurmountable Catch-22 of Davos discussing technology risks

We should take some encouragement that this week’s gathering of the powerful, the rich and the even richer in Davos chose technology risks as one of its key agenda items for discussion.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has acknowledged that emerging trends such as artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing, the internet of things and others present potentially huge societal challenges – not to mention established and well-publicised risks such as cyber security.

But it would be even more encouraging if the powerful, the rich and the even richer showed any inclination to actually doing something about it.

The red flags waved at WEF will be familiar to any close observers of the digital revolution.

AI and automation is likely to destroy many existing white-collar jobs – threatening to decimate the middle class the way that working classes were affected by the decline in coal, steel or manufacturing in western countries.

Secure, full-time jobs are already being replaced by self-employment and “flexible” work patterns in so-called “gig economy” companies that are led by technology, such as Uber or Deliveroo – both already the subject of legal cases around workers’ rights.

And with technology as the driving force behind globalisation, we’re already seeing a backlash through the rise of populist political developments such as Brexit and Donald Trump.

Who stands to benefit most from these trends – from replacing staff with machines, and reducing the rights of those workers they still need? Could it be the powerful, the rich and the even richer?

Where are the incentives for business leaders to look after the employees displaced by automation, or to train them in the new skills needed for a digital world?

Who has the influence to regulate gig economy firms to protect the employment rights of the workers upon which they depend?

And where are the movements showing how technology can address the popular discontent over the downsides of globalisation, such as growing social inequality?

None of these are insurmountable problems. They are not complicated to solve – but they are hard, and require focus and effort. But the Catch-22 is that the people most inclined to solve the problems don’t have the power to effect change, while the people with the power to effect change are not inclined to solve the problems.

It is, therefore, a positive step that WEF leaders are acknowledging the issues – look at us, we care, honest we do. But there is a long way to go before they start to do something about it.

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