Robots and Refugees

DAVOS – The theme of this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos was the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The subtitle should have been: Of Robots and Refugees. Although many of the panels focused on the technological marvels of the near future, others highlighted the world's inability to address one of humanity’s oldest problems: how to feed, house, and succor large populations driven by conflict from their homes and countries.

The First Industrial Revolution occurred with the invention of the steam engine and mechanical production; the second was defined by electrification and mass production; and the third was the digital revolution, which began in the 1960s with the invention of computers, semiconductors, and the Internet.

According to WEF Chairman Klaus Schwab, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is beginning now, “characterized by a much more ubiquitous and mobile Internet, by smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and by artificial intelligence and machine learning.” It is ushering in a world in which virtual and physical systems are intertwined in manufacturing, services, and the human body itself.

The WEF’s programs featured panels on robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and space travel. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London created an interactive exhibit called “This Time Tomorrow.” It featured six scenarios of possible futures, including a world in which full three-dimensional casts of human faces can be created from a single strand of DNA; buildings are covered with a skin capable of photosynthesis, taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen; and death can be beaten by bringing back those who choose to be cryogenically preserved.