With help from Ryan Heath and Derek Robertson
For years, the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos has been lampooned as a “strange annual gathering of the very rich, the very powerful, and the very clueless” in the words of Michael Hirsh writing for Foreign Policy magazine in 2019. Hirsh captured the key irony of Davos: “The people whom the forum asks to address the problems of global capitalism are often the very people who represent the problems of global capitalism.”
After a two-and-a-half year pause, Davos was back this week, with a new element: A big and growing industry notionally interested in tipping the balance of power, or at least decentralizing some of that wealth.
There’s no question the Davos crowd is curious about Web3, and the blockchain, and crypto — all systems built to take some power away from the exact central-banking crowd that flocks to the meeting. And the interest is clearly mutual. As POLITICO’s Ryan Heath found this week, the town’s main street was overrun with crypto-company logos and sponsored storefronts—but not because they were invited. “People with no access to political leaders having parties near the political leaders,” as he put it.
One billionaire had some cold-eyed thoughts about just why his peers might be so crypto-curious. David Rubinstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, told Ryan: “We saw what happened to the Russian oligarchs: it (their wealth) was visible and it can be taken away (by sanctions). I think a lot of very wealthy people are going to say, well, maybe I should have something in something that nobody can take away.”
“Nobody knows I have it, it’s not visible. And so I’ll put something of my net worth in it, just in case there’s a rainy day or somebody comes after me.”
Rubinstein said he doesn’t hold crypto himself — “I’m not saying that crypto is something I would buy: I don’t own it” — but, like a lot of investors, he backs companies that service the crypto industry.
For all the expertise gathered, Davos isn’t necessarily a place where technical innovations are met with much of a critical eye. It’s a place where big companies pay to wreath themselves in feel-good ideas like sustainability and good governance. This year, virtualization and decentralization were clearly joining that party.
Lockheed Martin touted an idea for a blockchain network in space, painting a caricature of the internet on Earth as “centralized” when the whole basis of the modern internet is that it is a decentralized, packet-switched network.
The epitome of Davos’s approach to technology might be the “Global Collaboration Village” — a virtual immersive space brought to you by the people who came up with Davos. As Julien Gattoni, the WEF’s managing director, told Derek, the village could be a place for a “participant to use VR to interact with a refugee in a camp in Africa, and give this experience to people that couldn’t be at Davos.”
Back in 2019, Hirsh concluded his evisceration of Davos by writing: “But let’s face it: These people need to get out more.”
It’s hard to imagine that a virtual visit to a refugee camp from a comfortable Swiss mountain retreat was exactly what he had in mind.
Artificial intelligence has now taken serious swings at both writing and graphic art. What about music?
For Pitchfork this week, veteran music journalist Philip Sherburne takes a closer look at the uses and history of artificial intelligence in creating music, dating back to David Cope’s early experiments imitating classical masters like Bach via computer.
Much like the large language models that generate eerily human-like writing, music-generating AIs are ultimately based on mere human input — whether that’s simply tonal information and instrument samples, or the human voice itself. That raises serious questions, as Sherburne writes, “about ownership, copyright, ethics, even basic media literacy.” What happens when something as unique as a voice becomes simply another instrument in the software toolbox?
“There should be some sort of sovereignty over one’s own voice,” the experimental technologist and musician Holly Herndon told Sherburne. Legislators have only recently begun addressing deepfakes, the visual equivalent of such voice-manipulating tools; “Voice cloning,” as a 2017 Wall Street Journal blog post called it, is still on the distant horizon.
The creative implications of musical and vocal AI could be either exciting or enervating, depending on whose hands it’s in — one musician worried to Sherburne about the risk that “people will get used to the shitty sound of AI.” The practical implications, on the other hand, might demand tech watchdogs’ much more explicit attention. — Derek Robertson
- The debate over whether or not cryptocurrencies are real securities is finally going to court.
- If you’re still not sure what a “quantum teleportation” is, or why it matters — a lot — read this.
- A crypto critic is celebrating regulators’ increased attention toward the industry.
- Cory Doctorow explains the vast spectrum of “decentralization” that exists beyond just the blockchain.
- Sony is moving aggressively into VR, with more than 20 “major” games announced for its upcoming headset.
Stay in touch with the whole team: Ben Schreckinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson ([email protected]); Konstantin Kakaes ([email protected]); and Heidi Vogt ([email protected]).
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