World Economic Forum’s Meeting Agenda Takes a Tilt at ‘Dark Topics’, Ai-Da — and Mind Control…

‘It’s worse psychologically to feel that you are useless than to feel you are exploited’ — Yuval Noah Harari


In the mid-1800s, Charles Babbage, an English mathematician, mechanical engineer and inventor, devised a series of steam-powered “calculating machines” — now recognised as the world’s first computers.

He was assisted in his quest by fellow mathematician Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron. In 2019, Lovelace’s part in sowing the seeds of a revolutionary technology was finally recognised when a robot was named after her: Ai-Da.

In October 2022, Ai-Da became the world’s first robotic artist, and was submitted to be “questioned” by a House of Lords inquiry into the future of AI-created art. While giving evidence, the robot had to be rebooted — but not before she warned the assembled peers that artificial intelligence was a threat to human artists.

A year earlier, Ai-Da — looking and sounding a bit like Lady Penelope from the 1960s televised puppet show Thunderbirds — delivered a Tedx talk in Oxford. She told her audience: “New technologies bring good, bad and banal, but since they are created, used, and wielded by humans, significant care needs to be taken. I like the works of the cautionary thinkers in the 20th Century — George Orwell and Aldous Huxley — who knew truth was illusive. Power could be manipulated, and human action and inertia/inaction (have) consequences.”

Ai-Da went on to say that the potential harms of new technologies in human hands should be addressed. “Technological control of minds should concern us in situations where power can be abused,” she said. “The manipulation of consciousness is to be taken seriously. These are dark topics. We need to engage with these issues and ask questions of the direction new technologies are being taken.”

These “dark topics” will be central to many of the conversations due to take place at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

A perfect storm of coinciding events has plunged the global economy into turmoil, and the annual alpine get-together of world leaders, political thinkers, financiers and theorists will find itself at a challenging crossroad.

While the WEF’s mission statement is to improve the world, critics regard the organisation as a gathering of elites intent on maintaining an outdated capitalist status quo for their own benefit. It focuses on obstacles to growth, and one thing is agreed: tech is leading us into the future — to recovery or ruin.

The growing disillusion with globalisation has been a recurring theme at WEF gatherings in recent years. A social backlash has been worsened by the lingering effects of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, energy crises, inflation, and the cost-of-living squeeze.

Technology has created a digital world empire which has brought wealth to some, but left many more confused and feeling abandoned. With rising prices, falling incomes and increasing threats to security, many warn that the risk of widespread social unrest has never been greater

Ahead of the 2023 WEF meeting, managing director Saddia Zahidi reported gloomy results from the most recent survey of 50 of the world’s leading economists. “Vulnerability has increased for large parts of the global population, both in developed and developing economies,” she said. Ninety percent of respondents expected real wages to fall. Millions would be affected by the cost-of-living crisis, and for some, it would be unmanageable, she added.

The trend towards deglobalisation was likely to continue, she believes. “It is going to be one of those profound mega-trends for some time to come,” she said. While she saw were no silver bullets, there were some silver linings: “The shift towards reskilling to better prepare the labour market for the future of work has to be pushed through by governments.”

This was a theme touched upon in August 2022 by Israeli historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and a top advisor to the WEF. In a recent interview, he said the advance of AI meant the world “no longer needed the vast majority of its population”.

Those soon to be replaced by robots and tech were beginning to question their personal value, Harari said. This, he said, was at the root of the backlash against the liberal order. The central place in society held by “common people” was being challenged, and individuals were being deprived of traditional roles.

“Part of what might be going on is that people realise ‘the future doesn’t need me. Maybe some crumbs will come my way, like universal basic income’. But it’s much worse psychologically to feel that you are useless than to feel you are exploited.
“In the early 21st Century, we just don’t need the vast majority of the population because the future is about developing more and more sophisticated technology.”

Nevertheless, the advance of AI and hi-tech came with potential solutions attached, Harari believes. AI will open opportunities, creating more interesting roles which require high levels of skill and education. “A lot of the jobs which are being displaced are actually kind of boring,” he notes, “and don’t really tap into the core of what the human is.” A new role for humans could be making communities better places to live — a “soft skill” where humans can still outperform machines.

WEF economists are cautiously optimistic that the global economy can be reset to emerge stronger, more environmentally aware, and more equitable and sustainable. But the economic tumult of the past two years has taken a toll.

According to a survey by California-based digital intelligence firm Constella, nearly half of companies surveyed reported increased security threats and incidents related to social, economic and geopolitical unrest in 2021.

These incidents included physical threats against workers and business premises, often by disgruntled former employees and customers, or activists. There were even reports of shootings, and travel risks to executives. By far the greatest risk, the survey reported, was the threat of cyber-attack on vulnerable company computer systems.

The internet — which has enabled the development of globalisation — is being exploited by those opposed to global capitalism. Businesses are urged to invest in proactive scrutiny of the dark web to identify threats.

Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace could never have imagined where their steam-driven analytical engines would lead. It is said that Ada’s mother, fearful that her daughter would inherit Lord Byron’s “hot blood”, pushed her towards mathematics to supress any mad, bad or dangerous tendencies.

Her robotic quasi-namesake, Ai-Da, is both level-headed and, allegedly, fond of poetry. Perhaps those attending the WEF meeting in January — seeking solutions to the crises of an increasingly hot-blooded world — will recognise that now is the time for calm, clear, logical and rational thought.

By Tony Lennox

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