What we learned about Davos and its implication on the year ahead

February 6, 2024

Last week the WMG had its first Smart Briefing of the year, a lively discussion with some of our top international journalists about the impact of Davos on the year ahead. Business Insider’s Spriha Srivastava chaired the panel, which included BBC News’s Faisal Islam, TIME’s Yasmeen Serhan and CNN’s Hanna Ziady. The full discussion is available to watch below alongside our key takeouts.

A cautiously optimistic outlook

Business leaders at Davos expressed a sense of ‘cautious optimism’ over the outlook for the global economy with the expectation that central banks will cut interest rates likely to deliver a boost to business and consumer spending. However, according to Hanna Ziady, there are still question marks over whether we can declare victory over inflation yet, not just from economists but also from bankers and from business executives. After a decade of ultra-low interest rates, where borrowing was cheap, companies are now having to become more ruthless and focused about how and where they invest, with borrowing costs expected to remain higher than in the recent past. Overstaffing is one such example, as evidenced by the slew of tech company layoffs we’ve seen over the last couple of years. Geopolitics is clouding the outlook, with concerns around shipping costs increasing because of the situation in the Red Sea and the potential for energy prices to rise if the Middle East conflict widens. That said, the ongoing conflict within Israel and Gaza didn’t dominate Davos in the way that Ukraine did last year. While the conflict was a focus of many of Yasmeen Serhan’s interviews, she thinks the lack of profile was because the Israel/Palestine/Gaza situation is less black and white. “I found that when people did talk about it – and they certainly talked about it – it was with a bit of anxiety and anxiousness,” she said.

 AI seeped into every conversation

It’s no surprise that AI was a hot topic. Srivastava asked the panel how they thought businesses were going to implement it and if people had a true understanding of it yet. Faisal Islam said that “about a third of Davos was like a giant AI sales conference,” but despite being cynical about its omnipresence, he is optimistic about how it will increase productivity, citing what’s been happening here in Britain with a Google DeepMind example of protein mapping. Previously, it took one PhD five years to map a protein, and it would have taken a billion PhD years to map all the proteins in the world. Today that has been achieved, thanks to generative AI, in a matter of months. Ziady thinks the potential of AI will contribute to economic growth by boosting productivity, which has been very weak for some time in the Western world. The conversations she was having about it at Davos were positive, centring on how it was going to augment workers rather than replacing jobs. She cited OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s pragmatic view ofAI as a “tool”, which, like any other tool, some people are using really well and it’s making them more productive, but it can’t do everything. For Serhan, who covers democracy and rising authoritarianism around the world, weighing up the risks and rewards that come with generative AI is unavoidable. “We have an unprecedented election year on our hands where half of the global population is going to be going to the polls at one point, including here in the UK and in the US. One thing that was certainly on my mind, particularly given the fact that this year’s conference was under the banner of Rebuilding Trust, was the question of how generative AI is going to impact these elections?” she said.

The battle against misinformation and disinformation

Serhan pointed out that AI has been used to mislead people in the hands of bad actors and could even be used by ‘bad candidates’ who want to mislead voters. Speaking with people about this in a geopolitical context and a from a human rights point of view, she said she was disappointed that there wasn’t more of a focus on it at Davos, especially given the headline theme of Rebuilding Trust. That said, she hopes it will be a focussed topic in the year ahead. Srivastava agreed there could be a huge problem in India, for example, during the upcoming election because the spread of misinformation and deep fakes is so wide. Islam pointed out that with the instant ability of AI to create thousands of articles that appear quite credible, it becomes easy for bad actors – not to specifically misinform, but to muddy the waters in terms of information. He said it was a big conversation amongst media executives at Davos and stressed that there’s never been a better argument for quality journalism from strong, trusted leading media brands. When it comes to bridging the digital divide, Serhan believes the media has a key role to play in shoring up trust. Although 95% of the global population now lives in areas served by mobile broadband connectivity, billions of people remain offline. While getting them online is important, Serhan pointed out that it’s equally important to ensure that the information they are accessing once online is accurate. During a TIME roundtable Josephine Teo, Singapore’s Minister for Communications, emphasised how essential this is. Teo said the media has an important role in securing digital trust for the long-term, stressing that the risks with going online could drive people to withdraw from digital engagement, which would be detrimental.

A memorable meeting

Finally, the panel ended on a fun note with Srivastava sharing her favourite celebrity anecdote from the conference. “I was going to interview the Minister of AI for UAE and I was downstairs in their pavilion waiting outside. The room door opened up and Sam Altman was there right in front of me. And the first word that came out of my mouth was a four-letter word that rhymes with duck! He laughed out loud. We had a two-minute interaction and he walked away, then he turned back and smiled. I knew that he would definitely remember me now!”