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Technology

Asian tech execs voice hopes and fears for AI in Davos

'Whether or not you like it, it is happening,' says Alibaba's CEO Zhang

Jack Ma Yun, chairman of Alibaba Group Holding, speaks at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos on Jan. 23.    © Reuters

DAVOS, Switzerland -- Artificial intelligence is a major topic of interest at this year's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. As the core of the latest industrial revolution forming the new phase of globalization, AI is being hotly debated. Leaders of IT companies from Asia and around the world voice their hopes and concerns about the new technology. 

During a dialogue session with Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Alibaba Group Holding CEO Daniel Zhang Yong said, "We do believe that with the new technology, we can create a better experience for our customers but also improve the operating efficiencies of the merchants." 

China's largest e-commerce conglomerate provides customers with recommendations based on personal preferences and uses voice-recognition technology in chat bots for customer service. 

"Whether or not you like it, it is happening," Zhang said. "So rather than questioning it or hesitating, I think we [should] just go ahead and embrace this." 

But many concerns surround the development of AI, chief among them privacy protection. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, in a separate dialogue session on the same day, said, "As creators of AI, we need to have some principles that govern AI."

Abidali Neemuchwala, CEO of Wipro, said both business and governments must progress with "reskilling of the workers so that we address the anxiety that comes with Globalization 4.0," he said. As a major beneficiary in the previous round of globalization, the Indian IT chief stressed the needs to alleviate fear and wariness over AI's impact on jobs and people, during a Tuesday panel on the digital economy.

People also expressed anxiety about the expected oligopolistic control of the technology.

Amy Webb, adjunct assistant professor at New York University, pointed out that only nine companies control the future of AI -- six American (Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, Apple and Facebook) and three Chinese (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent Holdings). The problem is that "relatively few number of people making decisions on behalf of us all," while their technologies touch virtually every individual and business in the world.

Jack Ma Yun, founding chairman of Alibaba, even hinted at a hypothetical doomsday scenario. Talking to a group of selected young leaders on Wednesday, he said, "The first world war was because of the first technology revolution. The second technology revolution caused the second world war." Then he added, "This is the third technology revolution."

For Kai-Fu Lee, chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, "there's too much hype and paranoia out there." Wrapping up the debate at the Thursday session on AI rule-setting, he stressed the "need to really broadly educate people on what AI is capable of and not capable of." After these are sorted out, "then there can be more rational progress."

Nikkei staff writer Togo Shiraishi contributed to this story.

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