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Davos as it Happened: Blockchain, AI, and Geopolitics



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Last week, the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos came to a close. As a matter of fact, the forum plays two roles: firstly, it’s an international platform where local leaders can meet stakeholders to get their point across; secondly, it’s a kind of a fair for big businesses where they can negotiate and sign deals.

Usually, Davos attendees include high-ranking officials and top management of transnational corporations. However, in recent years the event brings together more and more innovative companies like Google, Huawei, Alibaba, Salesforce, Infosys, Facebook, Hyperloop etc.

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One of Davos habitués is a well-known Russian visionary, composer and venture investor Alexander Shulgin. In an interview, he tells about relevance of blockchain-related issues at this year’s event, and other technological trends discussed during the forum.

FL: What did you find the most interesting in Davos agenda this year?

Alexander Shulgin: I’ve been attending the Davos forum for 10 years in a row. Why? Because I’m interested in global trends of the civilization development. That’s why you have to attend these events, they give you a bigger picture. If you follow this development, you can more or less determine when some efforts will be sought after, and how they could be used large-scale. Unfortunately, the events held in Russia don’t give such a picture. There are some attempts, but they are either too political, or too sector-specific, and there’s no global picture. Hopefully, things will change for the better.

I think, the Korean World Knowledge Forum is the only event trying to do something about this, yet it is more knowledge-focused. It attracts a lot of theoreticians who, in my view, are going a bit in the wrong direction.

Or, take for example TED Talk and their specific format of 15-minute speeches on a preselected topic. Yes, they can be absolutely fantastic and amazing. But they don’t cover geopolitical issues, something you can’t omit either.

The Davos forum, on the other hand, covers all global issues including certain fields of interests. It’s like an essence, a concentrate of all trends I told about earlier.

FL: What trends discussed at the forum would you highlight?

A. S.: Politically, it’s certainly Trump and Brexit, which is quite natural. Everyone is interested whether someone follows Britain out of the EU. Besides, many countries will hold elections this year, Germany, France, Italy. Trump is the second main topic. And, of course, due to Trump’s inauguration ceremony this year’s agenda has been was somewhat brief. On January 19, many attendees left Davos.

Another remarkable geopolitical event of the forum was the visit of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.

His arrival came as a surprise to many people there. Xi Jinping’s main message was that the West should open its markets: you say you like competition, so here you go, China is ready for this. His statements shocked some people as there was nothing they could actually respond: China is beating the West at its own game. Also, the speech by Jack Ma of Alibaba was one of the most widely discussed.

Other big trends included global warming and water shortage. People cited numerous facts proving the scale of the forthcoming disaster. Specifically, Hollywood star Matt Damon was speaking a lot about water.

Technology-wise, people mostly discussed artificial intelligence. The topic is brought from several points of view: as a challenge, as an ethical problem, etc.

FL: You wrote on Facebook about the AI, and asked your friends to answer whether robots should pay taxes or will they demand civil rights. What are your own answers to these questions?

A. S.: Good question but not an easy one to answer. That’s why I asked the community: I have no answers myself. A German visionary gave an interesting answer suggesting that AI-enabled robots will be treated as modern slaves without any rights. But it’s interesting: if there’s a robot working instead of a human, their labor should be legally executed, as a LLC or something like that.

If we recall Amazon’s Alexa, an assistant capable of replacing three workers, there’s a question about taxes. Expanding robotization will result in freeing up human labor and less taxes. If there are no taxes, there is no state budget, so there’s a bigger question of whether state as an institution survives. In my opinion, everything will be dramatically changing, and we’ll witness changes that nobody has ever seen. It’s all about transition to new practices, a change of financial and monetary system, and, as a result, a change of regime as such.

FL: A little more about Davos if you don’t mind. We know that ‘the fourth industrial revolution’ was among the most widely discussed topics there. Is there a place for blockchain in the term’s context?

A. S.: For Klaus Schwab who had coined the term, ‘the fourth industrial revolution’ is one of backbones of recent Davos forums.

It’s obvious that it won’t take one year; it just can’t happen overnight and be a top theme of a certain year. I believe that ‘the fourth revolution’ will become a framework that will be filled with relevant phenomena in the next few years. The Chinese don’t call it ‘revolution’ as they’ve had a completely different history of development.

FL: Overall, which of the speeches you personally thought were the most exciting?

A. S.: Of course, the one by Xi Jinping, it was a very serious speech. Also stood out discussions on the AI and a chipset that could appear in the next 20 or 25 years and where one could upload the entire knowledge of humankind. There were also suggestions that the Solar System would be too small for us by that time. All of these sounded quite utopic, still it was very interesting.

I already mentioned the AI and ethics. Say, there’s a situation: a bus stop and ten people there, including children. Then there’s a smart car passing by and some non-routine situation happens giving the driver a choice of either killing all the people on the bus stop, or steering the car into a ditch effectively killing himself. How should this car be programmed? What set of ethical rules should be appled? What if there are also children in the car? How this AI car should decide who to sacrifice? It’s not all that easy with the AI.

FL: Blockchain activist Don Tapscott said before Davos that blockchain could be the major topic of emphasis for this year’s meeting. Was he right about this?

A. S.: I asked Don Tapscott about that, and he said, “Of course, this is what happened!” Well, it might not be exactly like that, but, as we know, being determines consciousness. He’s been there for three days and participated in three side events, all focused on blockchain. They were Internet of Books event, the event where Bitfury Group officially presented their GBBC initiative, a couple of other meetings. So, from Tapscott’s point of view, the forum was all about blockchain.

In my opinion, there was more of blockchain at last year’s meeting, but this year the technology was mentioned more often in the discussions between technological startups. Nine out of ten people, when asked ‘where do you invest,’ answered ‘blockchain.’ They discussed blockchain behind the scenes as well. At the VTB breakfast, which was one of the biggest side events, managers of Russian and global banks were actively discussing blockchain and related projects.

FL: So, one might say that the level of blockchain awareness is growing by the year?

A. S.: I’d say, it’s rather interest than awareness. Those speaking about blockchain investment don’t really realize what it is. But we’ll be helping them out, together with you and your readers.



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