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Davos, AI and a New Social Contract

The logo of the World Economic Forum is seen in the congress center of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in DavosThe logo of the World Economic Forum is seen in the congress center of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos
The World Economic Forum has been gearing up for an ambitious project.Photograph by Ruben Sprich—Reuters

Good morning from Davos.

At 7 a.m., I was standing at the back of a long line in near-zero weather, waiting to get through security and wondering if it was worth the effort to start my day so early (especially after visiting Anthony Scaramucci’s fine wine party the night before.)

Turned out, it was. The breakfast discussion on artificial intelligence, hosted by McKinsey, included Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of DeepMind; David Kenny, chief of IBM Watson; Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella; and Dow CEO Andrew Liveris. Artificial intelligence is the hot topic at this year’s gathering, and the panel provided a sharp focus on how businesses should be thinking about this rapidly developing technology.


Two points to emphasize:

First, as reported here before, the creation of general intelligence that mimics the human brain is still a long way off. “I’m pretty sure it is possible,” said Suleyman. “It’s just a question of the timetable. Probably six or seven decades.”

Second, in the meantime, artificial intelligence is not going to replace humans, but rather augment them. The key for business people is to understand that artificial intelligence is not an extension of their IT efforts or their digital efforts, but rather, in Kenny’s words, “fundamental to the most important decisions that you make. Anyone in your company who makes important decisions will need to understand this viscerally” to compete in the years ahead.

All on the panel agreed that this technological change would create more jobs than it would eliminate. “There will be more employment, just different,” said Liveris. But they acknowledged two serious societal challenges: first, educating and training workers to take advantage of the change; and second, assuring the benefits of productivity gains are widely shared.

Nadella was particularly compelling on the second point. We need technology breakthroughs to boost productivity and create a “surplus” to address society’s greatest problems, he said. But then “we have to deal with the real issue of equitable distribution of that surplus.” The benefits of technology can’t go only to the owners of capital and the most highly skilled, as they have in recent years. “We’ve got somehow to get this new formula where both the return on capital and the return on labor come together… We need a new social contract.”

Separately, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty in Davos yesterday released her company’s “principles for transparency and trust” in the cognitive (IBM’s term for AI) era. You can read them here. And you can find more of Fortune‘s Davos coverage here.