Nicholas Thompson, Editor-in-Chief, Wired Magazine; Marcus Souza, Secretary of Innovation and New Business, Ministry of Industry, Foreign Trade and Service of Brazil; Feng Zhang, James and Patricia Poitras Professor in Neuroscience, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Mary Cummings, Director, Humans and Autonomy Lab (HAL), Duke University; Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO, Salesforce; Peter Thomson, United Nations Special Envoy for the Ocean

The technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can bring great benefits to humanity as well as intended or unintended consequences that threaten the future of the planet. A panel discussion, Future Shocks: Rogue Technology, at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, addressed the challenges brought by advances in technologies such as AI, robotics and bioengineering.  

Salesforce Chairman and CEO Marc Benioff discussed the growing problem of plastics in the oceans. “More and more plastic is getting embedded into our beaches,” he said. “What I really want is a beach-cleaning robot with next-generation vision, AI and robotic technology, to go through all those grains of sand and figure out what is sand and what is plastic and clean that beach. That same technology could be used for deploying autonomous deep-sea robots to mine the seabed for valuable materials and metals." The danger is unregulated those robots could be used to strip-mine the ocean floor, he added.

“We know more about the face of Mars than the ocean floor. Seabed mining is definitely coming but it’s not allowed at present. We don’t have regulation, but laws will be ready soon,” said Peter Thomson, United Nations Special Envoy for the Ocean.

“Technology is not a panacea. We overestimate its capabilities. Sand is a destroyer of mechanical systems, like the Mars rovers. There are technical difficulties for a beach-cleaning Roomba robot,” said Mary Cummings, Director, Humans and Autonomy Lab (HAL), Duke University. “My concern with deep-sea mining robots is not the intentional malevolent use of technology, it’s the accidental malevolent use. AI is opening a Pandora’s box. We really don’t understand how the underlying algorithms work.” For example, advances in biotechnology could end up decimating rather than increasing global fish stocks. Driverless cars can be easily hacked by putting stickers on stop signs to confuse the algorithms. “The technology is just a tool,” she said. “It needs to augment humans.”

Technologies like CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) are making it possible to give scientists unprecedented control of a genome. “The combination of reading and writing DNA makes it possible for us to transfer traits from one organism to another organism,” said Feng Zhang, James and Patricia Poitras Professor in Neuroscience, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He gave an example of transferring the anti-freezing trait of an arctic fish to a strawberry so that it would be more resilient to cold weather.  “As we sequence more and more organisms, we can now find interesting properties that these organisms evolved to allow them to most optimally survive in their own environment and transfer some of those into other organisms so that we can improve the property...and prevent the extinction of species.”  

At the same time, Zhang cautioned that manufactured bio-organisms can have unintended consequences. “Because we are starting to learn how to program biology, we can begin to build these controllable circuits with redundancy, so when you do release a bioengineering solution that’s biologically inspired and based it's possible to have the ability to revers it,” he said. 

Large data sets and AI are allowing every industry to make better decisions. “As a CEO I can ask a question of [Salesforce] Einstein, my virtual management team member, and say ‘how is the company doing’, ‘are we going to make our quarter’, ‘how is this product’, ‘what geography should I travel to and have the biggest impact for the company’, said Benioff. “I have this kind of technology, and I want to make it available to all customers. But I don’t want to turn it over and get a call from a CEO that he or she made a bad decision because we didn’t have it exactly right yet.”

While AI is becoming more mainstream, there is a skills gap. “We are in a global AI crisis for talent. Universities cannot put out enough people who understand AI,” Cummings said. “Companies are running so fast on the AI hamster wheel that they can’t keep up, and we can’t keep up enough in producing the people. The educational programs are very archaic. We still train people in the university setting globally like we did 30 years ago. That’s not a good model, so there’s a lot to do in the education sphere.”

Regulation is a major hurdle for the adoption of new technologies. “With the speed of Fourth Industrial Revolution technology advances, government regulations are always behind,” said Marcus Souza, Secretary of Innovation and New Business, Ministry of Industry, Foreign Trade and Service of Brazil. “The time to analyze the impact on the environment of new technology is too long and delays adoption of new technology.” For example, regulations for airspace and autonomous drones are lacking, which delays the adoption of the technologies for agriculture and other uses.

Nor are the benefits of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies equally distributed. “I made a trip to Silicon Valley and came away seeing a new vision of the world. A week later I was doing a tour of the Central African Republic," Thomson said. "In the congestion of camel carts and huge trucks going through potholed roads, I would be so embarrassed to stand up in the town square and tell them about Silicon Valley, because it was patently just for the small percentage of rich people in the world and the majority will never get anywhere near that anytime soon. We have to be aware we cannot be shaping a future in which a half or quarter of us live in a world where people live forever and the rest are peasants. A global discussion, particularly on the ethics side, is really important.”