For those that are unaware, the World Economic Forum is widely considered one of the most exclusive gatherings of the world’s elite, and is an invitation-only event where politicians, CEOs, media, and academics come together to discuss the world’s most pressing issues. This year, the theme of the forum was “Globalization 4.0”, focusing on how the world will change due to new technologies. Of course, one of the most discussed and contested topics with regards to technology is, undoubtedly, artificial intelligence.

Fear of AI

There is little doubt that the world is, at least on some level, wary of artificial intelligence. Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist that many believed to be one of the greatest minds of all time, warned about artificial intelligence before his death. In November 2017, he pointed out the immense risk associated with the technology, telling an audience at a conference in Lisbon, Portugal, that it could end up being the “worst event in the history of our civilization.” 

Another visionary of our time, billionaire CEO Elon Musk, founder of forward-thinking companies such as Tesla and SpaceX, has also tried to express his own concerns about artificial intelligence. He has stated numerous times that he believes human beings should be more worried about AI.

Big Money

While there are many individuals who might be worried about whether artificial intelligence could actually replace their job – the truth is that many of the business executives at Davos represent the largest corporations in the world, who aren’t hesitating to automate their companies as much as possible. This isn’t even something that they are necessarily hiding, either.

One example is Carl’s Jr/Hardees CEO Andy Puzder, who hasn’t been shy about the fact that he would rather replace his workers than raise their wages. He told Business Insider specifically that he was interested in the concept of an employee-free restaurant. The CEO even commented that automation was inevitable, adding:

With government driving up the cost of labor, it’s driving down the number of jobs. You’re going to see automation not just in airports and grocery stores, but in restaurants.

Andy Puzder

CEO, Carl’s Jr & Hardees

In an added twist of irony, Puzder was United States president Donald Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary. It also appears that in a world where companies can be held accountable more than others, thanks to technology and social media – they also want to make sure that they don’t face the kind of backlash that could lead to boycotts or the kind of brand damage that is either difficult or impossible to recover from. Ben Pring, who works at a high-profile position at technology services firm Cognizant, puts it simply:

“That’s the great dichotomy. On one hand, they absolutely want to automate as much as they can. On the other hand, they’re facing a backlash in civic society.”

Keeping Up

It’s no surprise that companies are concerned about backlash, considering that Americans in particular are more concerned about wealth inequality than ever. In fact, one of the most popular politicians in the country now is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was a bartender a little more than a year ago, but is now a 29 year-old U.S. representative with over 2 million Twitter followers. When she stated that she believes that a 70% marginal tax rate should be considered, many in the media dismissed it. However, it appears as though many Americans agree with the young politician, according to polls.

Regardless, in Davos, one way that business leaders were able to frame the conversation was by pointing out that China is already exploring artificial intelligence, and that the United States needs to keep up to compete. This sentiment was echoed by Steve Schwarzman, one of the most important finance players in the world, as the chief executive of Blackstone. At Davos, he stated:

When I go to China, there’s almost an endless stream of people who are showing up developing new companies. The venture business there in AI-oriented companies is really exploding with growth.

Steve Schwarzman

CEO, Blackstone