People share a lunch during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on January 24, 2015 in Davos (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

  © Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

For me, the best thing about last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos was an exposure to worldviews very different from my own. Professionally, I hang around mainly with technologists, entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and economists at American universities.

People within these groups certainly don’t agree with each other all of the time, or with me, but most of us do share some baseline assumptions on important topics. These include:

  • Creative destruction is good news. Better products take market share from inferior ones, more nimble and innovative companies displace slow and sleepy older ones, and entire industries — like those for cameras, film, and standalone GPS devices — can be swept away by something as simple as a smartphone. This process should be encouraged, even though it’s not pleasant for all parties involved, and even though it leads to job loss and worker dislocation.

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Humanoid robot iCub eyes a plastic ball as he is on display during the 2014 IEEE-RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots in Madrid on November 19, 2014 (GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images)

  © Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

I spent a couple of days earlier this month at a small, high-level gathering of people interested in how the field of artificial intelligence (AI) is progressing. Many, if not most, of the attendees actually build AI systems for a living, and many of the discipline’s early pioneers and current bright young things were there. The rest of us were a mix of entrepreneurs, economists, ethicists, lawyers, and others who share an interest in getting computers to do brain-like things.

The group came together largely to discuss AI safety — the challenges and problems that might arise if digital systems ever become superintelligent. I wasn’t that concerned about AI safety coming into the conference, for reasons that I have written about previously. So did I change my mind?

Maybe a little bit. The argument that we should be concerned about any potentially existential risks to humanity, even if they’re pretty far in the future and we don’t know exactly how they’ll manifest themselves, is a fairly persuasive one. However, I still feel that we’re multiple “Watson and Crick moments” away from anything we need to worry about, so I haven’t signed the open letter on research priorities that came out in the wake of the conference — at least not yet. But who knows how quickly things might change? Read more

  © John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Is it worse when regulators and legislators take action in the face of technological progress, or when they sit idle? The events of the past few days show that this is a tough question.

The case against action comes from Spain, where a law was passed mandating that publishers charge internet news aggregators who reprint headlines or small snippets of text when linking to publishers’ stories. Yes, “mandating.” Not “allowing” or “giving the option to.” Once the law takes effect early next year, a Spanish publisher will no longer be able to let aggregators like Google News show bits of their content for free.

Google’s move in response to this was unsurprising: the company announced that it would shut down Google News in Spain. As a spokesperson said, “As Google News itself makes no money (we do not show any advertising on the site) this new approach is simply not sustainable. So it’s with real sadness that on 16 December (before the new law comes into effect in January) we’ll remove Spanish publishers from Google News, and close Google News in Spain.” Read more

When hugely intelligent and accomplished people start worrying a lot about artificial intelligence, should we join them? The physicist Stephen Hawking recently told the BBC that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. Earlier this autumn the entrepreneur Elon Musk called AI “our biggest existential threat” and compared the research under way to “summoning the demon”.

Why is this? Prof Hawking gives a concise summary of the big fear: that once there is true artificial intelligence — a full digital version of the human mind — it “would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate . . . Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.” Read more

Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century was named the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year last week. It’s a hard decision to argue with (even though our book The Second Machine Age was also on the shortlist!) Piketty’s contribution is fundamental; he showed us how wealth and income have been distributed over hundreds of years in several countries, and showed how similar the patterns and trends are.

We simply didn’t have this level of knowledge before he and his colleagues did their painstaking work. We can and should debate whether he’s discovered the essential laws of capitalism, how worried we should be about the rise of the 1 per cent (and the even more rarified reaches of wealth and income — the .01 per cent — that Piketty seems almost obsessed with), and many other topics raised by Capital, but there’s no longer much debate that high inequality has been the historical norm, and that it’s on the rise again around the world.

I think it’s going to keep rising. Read more

A Tesla Motors vehicle in a Miami, Florida showroom (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

  © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

How much should it worry Germany that the world’s coolest car company no longer hails from that country?

This question occurred to me as I sat in a meeting a short time ago with a senior figure responsible for Germany’s economic growth and future trajectory. He was confident that his country’s many strengths would allow it to continue to prosper, and to lead in what it has labelled “Industry 4.0.” This is the anticipated fourth industrial revolution (after the ones powered by steam; electricity and the internal combustion engine; and the computer) during which the real and virtual worlds will merge.

I believe this merger is coming, and coming fast. But who’s going to lead it? Which country’s companies will grow by creating new markets and disrupting existing ones? These questions matter not just because national pride is at stake, but also because national prosperity is. Read more

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I’m digging into Peter Thiel‘s new book Zero to One, which is as smart and contrarian as its author in its discussion of the rhetoric and reality of competition. Thiel points out that monopolists tend to downplay their status and talk about how competitive their markets are, while businesses in truly competitive, undifferentiated sectors highlight their uniqueness. The book encourages prospective entrepreneurs not to be copycats (a process Thiel calls going from “one to n”) and instead to try to build the next great technology monopoly in a new field – to go from “zero to one”. Read more

A Dexmart robotic hand built at the University of Bologna in the Robotville exhibition at the Science Museum on November 29, 2011 in London, England (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

  © Oli Scarff/Getty Images

History teaches us that nothing changes the world like technology. For thousands of years, until the middle of the 18th century, there were only glacial rates of population growth, economic expansion, and social development. Then an industrial revolution happened, centered around James Watt’s improved steam engine, and humanity’s trajectory bent sharply and permanently upward.

Great wars and empires, despots and democrats, the insights of science and the revelations of religion – none of them transformed lives and civilizations as much as a few practical inventions. Technological progress never occurs in a vacuum, of course, and the industrial revolution was greatly helped along by innovations and institutions such as banks, universities, joint stock companies, and patents. But we shouldn’t let this fact obscure the larger truth, which is that, as the physicist Freeman Dyson put it: “Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God’s gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences”. Read more