World Economic Forum 2018: Four key tech takeaways

World Economic Forum 2018

Wondering what tech developments and trends were unveiled at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland?

The purpose of the WEF is to improve the state of the world by fostering cooperation between governments, NGOs, and the private sector. In January, more than 2,500 participants from over 100 countries participated in over 400 sessions on a range of social, political, and economic issues under the common theme, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”. As usual, this year’s agenda delivered great insights for the tech community from industry experts. Representatives from some of the world’s biggest companies gathered to discuss opportunities, challenges and trends related to technology and what to expect in the near future.

In this article, PayU – the largest payment gateway in South Africa – provides a snapshot of what businesses should be considering, budgeting for, or already implementing in 2018 based on this year’s WEF.

Ecommerce will continue to grow

A major topic that came up repeatedly throughout the forum this year had to do with the future of eCommerce. Prime minister of Peru, Mercedes Araoz; president of Rags2Riches, Therese Fernandez Ruiz; Alibaba Group executive chairman, Jack Ma; and WTO director general, Roberto Azevedo led a discussion titled, “Enabling eCommerce: Small Enterprises, Global Players”, the key message of which was that eCommerce could open the door to international markets for small businesses and, for eCommerce to grow, it needs to recognise small businesses as part of the global economy.

Ma talked about the importance of an inclusive economy, saying, “eCommerce is not for the big companies, the developed countries. It’s for the developing countries, young people, and small businesses.”

He further teased the potential of cross-border eCommerce: “In the future, every young person and small business will be able to buy globally, sell globally, pay globally, and travel globally. This is the trend – no one can stop it.”

The panel confirmed that eCommerce is not something that’s here today, gone tomorrow. Considering that eCommerce is not a passing trend, discussions followed on next steps and how it can be expanded. Azevedo commented, “I think that the potential of cross-border eCommerce needs the feedback of the international community.” Instead of simply relying on government feedback, businesses were urged to consider the feedback of people and groups working on the ground.

Artificial intelligence will save us, not destroy us

Despite Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk previously predicting that AI could be the end of humanity, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, took a more optimistic stance when he highlighted the benefits of this technology at the WEF. “AI is probably the most important thing humanity has ever worked on. I think of it as something more profound than electricity or fire,” he said. “When you think about a lot of problems in the world, we typically have a constraint on resources. AI for the first time offers a different construct.”

Pichai believes that AI technology could eliminate many of the constraints every industry faces but he also stressed the need to control the evolution of autonomous systems. But, at this stage in the development of AI, the technology is presenting itself as an opportunity rather than a threat. Machine learning algorithms are already applied by the world’s largest eCommerce giants to improve efficiency via chatbots, smart logistics and recommendation engines.

Collaborative action is needed to create safe operating space for new technologies

In their Global Risks Report 2018, the World Economic Forum singled out cybersecurity as one of the world’s most critical threats. For this reason, the forum launched the Global Centre for Cybersecurity – a platform for governments, companies and international organisations to join forces in the fight against cyber attacks. “If we want to prevent a digital dark age, we need to work harder to make sure the benefits and potential of the fourth industrial revolution are secure and safe for society,” Alois Zwinggi of WEF and the head of the Global Centre for Cybersecurity said during a press conference. The forum describes the fourth industrial revolution as a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries.

Cybersecurity also came under spotlight during a session titled, “Securing a Common Future in Cyberspace”, which was joined by Tim Murphy, general counsel and chief franchise officer of Mastercard, and the CEO of Maersk, among others. Once again, the emphasis was on how different forms of collaboration are becoming increasingly critical to combating cyber threats. The highlight of the discussion was the announcement of the Cyber Readiness Institute, an initiative that will develop tools to help small and medium-sized businesses build a resilient defence against cyber attacks.

Businesses should protect their employees from workforce automation

Developments in artificial intelligence and robotics are driving a new wave of automation in the labour market, with machines taking over an ever-increasing range of repetitive tasks. Automation is already disrupting eCommerce – website owners can now integrate automation systems to simplify processes such as: preloading new products and publishing them to their store, social media, apps, and sales channels simultaneously; or adjusting prices at checkout based on product combinations, quantity, or customer location.

Despite the advantages commonly attributed to automation, Joe Kaeser, president and CEO of Siemens AG, called on businesses to take up social responsibility toward employees who risk losing their jobs to automation. Kaeser wrote in an article that was part of the meeting, “Because the Fourth Industrial Revolution runs on knowledge, we need a concurrent revolution in training and education. Here, both government and business must join forces to provide workers with the skills and qualifications they need to participate in the digital economy.”

As eCommerce companies brace themselves for a future with automation, they should simultaneously invest in productive employment for workers expected to be replaced by technological changes.

What can eCommerce businesses learn from the World Economic Forum 2018?

At the end, the WEF gave us a clear indication of where eCommerce is heading. The most important takeaway from the tech-focused sessions is the significant opportunities innovation brings to companies who are ready to take advantage, but that these companies also need to be aware of the challenges they bring.