With the World Economic Forum having convened its annual meeting this week in Davos, Switzerland, global leaders from business and government discussed tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges. While many of these problems can be traced directly to industrialization, it’s the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) — with its merging of digital, physical and biological realms — that could help rectify them.
More specifically, artificial intelligence (AI) will be a large part of potential solutions, whether the topic is climate change, biodiversity, ocean health, water management or air pollution. For instance, AI could support the creation of distributed, “off-grid” water and energy resources. It could also improve climate modelling or bolster natural disaster resilience planning.
Rather than a remedy in and of itself, AI is a vehicle that can help us arrive at these solutions. Achieving this vision will require ongoing cooperation among governments, technology hubs such as Silicon Valley, investors and civil society.
AI could prove to be the greatest collective innovation of our generation. But as Winston Churchill famously stated, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” This point cannot be overlooked, because the 4IR — driven by AI — could also exacerbate existing threats to environmental security or create entirely new risks that will need to be addressed.
According to PwC’s just-released Global CEO Survey, top executives are anxious about broad societal threats. Roughly a third of CEOs surveyed believe that globalization has not helped at all with averting climate change and resource scarcity. There is an opportunity to reduce these concerns as ethical and responsible applications of AI help us navigate a fractured world.
For example, a new report from PwC and the World Economic Forum, Harnessing artificial intelligence for the Earth, explores how AI innovations could help the environment and natural resource security agenda. The report details how using AI ethically and responsibly involves three main elements: the use of big data; the growing reliance on algorithms to perform tasks, shape choices and make decisions; and the gradual reduction of human involvement in many processes.
Yes, AI offers enormous potential both for the global economy and, more widely, for constructing a sustainable planet for future generations. However, it also poses both short- and long-term risks if it is not applied and managed responsibly where it involves individuals, organizations, society and the planet. Such risks go far beyond oft-cited job losses and could range from hacking and cyber threats to energy demand to ethical issues around bias and privacy concerns.
Doing the right thing, for business and for our world
The call to action runs much deeper than public-private collaboration. Angel investors, venture capitalists, accelerators and impact investors should build and support a portfolio of 4IR technology companies that address sustainability challenges as part of their core strategies. The same goes for mainstream institutional investors and asset managers in that they can embed sustainability into their AI investment portfolios. Will there be commercial opportunities? Yes. Could this type of support speed up AI’s transformational impact? Definitely.
By taking action across these areas, stakeholders build trust in society, and trust is an integral value for organizations of all sorts. And AI requires real accountability. As government and industry leaders navigate the risk factors that AI technology could amplify and exacerbate, they need to ensure the safety, transparency and validity of AI applications. The onus for this rests with authorities, AI researchers, technology pioneers and AI adopters in industry to encourage use cases that earn trust and take aim at the major issues facing our planet.
Scaling pioneering innovations, and making sustainability considerations a core component of AI development and use cases is one of the biggest challenges for innovators, investors and governments.
So much AI dialogue focuses on potential human job losses. This fills headlines, but the notion on its own omits significant benefits AI is bestowing on society. AI is changing the way we work, live and interact, and it’s enabling better health and education outcomes. So it’s all of our responsibility to make it.