The World Economic Forum has published its Global Risks Report every year for nearly two decades. The 19th annual edition lists a brand new worldwide threat, and dedicates an entire section to its myriad implications: artificial intelligence.
The WEF report tracks the most severe risks we may face over the next decade, which include climate change, geopolitical power shifts, human migration, and technological acceleration. Overall, the 2024 edition says, there is “a predominantly negative outlook for the world over the next two years that is expected to worsen over the next decade.”
But AI, and technology in general, turn up throughout the report, notably when discussing “societal polarization,” which ascended to a top-three risk and was placed ninth in long-term threats. “As polarization grows and technological risks remain unchecked, ‘truth’ will come under pressure,” the report warns.
AI is everywhere
The WEF report delves into AI’s diverse implications across the board. In healthcare, it raises alarms about the ethical use of data, noting potential biases in medical R&D that favor wealthier populations. “New healthcare solutions and early diagnosis, medical research and development could be geared towards the wealthy,” the authors note, mirroring many of the criticism levied at the billionaire leaders of the longevity movement.
“[A] combination of AI tools could enable the creation of more targeted and severe biological weapons,” the report adds.
These mirrors broader concerns about AI deepening economic disparities, especially between high- and low-income nations.
Quantum computing, another AI-heavy frontier, is also flagged as a potential disruptor, threatening the current tech regime and presenting significant security risks. In the realm of geopolitics, meanwhile, AI’s increasing integration into military applications will put pressure on ethics and human rights, particularly as they relate to autonomous weapons systems.
“Quantum computing could break and remake monopolies over compute power, posing radical risks in its development,” the report says. “Criminal actors have already launched harvest attacks—also known as ‘store now, decrypt later’ or SNDL attacks) in anticipation of a cryptographically significant computer.”
Much of the WEF’s warnings on AI were tied to deepfakes. With the explosive growth of AI-generated content, discerning fact from fiction has become a formidable challenge. Misinformation and disinformation introduced via “false, imposter, manipulated and fabricated content” are thus cataloged as global risks for their ability to shift “public opinion in a significant way towards distrust in facts and authority.”
The report also highlights AI’s impact on the global job market, predicting significant disruption across various sectors.
This specific issue has been quite controversial across different industries. From entertainment to pure scientific research, the rapid replacement of humans by AI has led to a global labor situation that some experts believe could have a serious impact on future generations. While AI may create new job opportunities, the WEF notes, it could also lead to substantial job losses, exacerbating economic instability.
The WEF calls for greater public awareness and education in AI and its regulation to address these risks.
The WEF is not alone
AI has emerged as a topic of intense debate and concern among global leaders. The recent international declaration on AI safety, signed by leaders from 29 countries and the EU at Bletchley Park, underscores the widely recognize urgency of managing this emerging technology.
The United Kingdom, choosing a different path, has announced it will not regulate AI in the near future, prioritizing innovation over restrictions. But it recently started to investigate whether the OpenAI-Microsoft partnership might violate antitrust laws. Indeed, the WEF report warns of a concentration of technological power, which mirrors the concerns raised by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres. He warned last year that “AI expertise is concentrated in a handful of companies and countries,” potentially deepening global inequalities and transforming “digital divides into chasms.”
Edited by Ryan Ozawa.