Jane Lawrie 29 Jan 2024 // 9:22AM GMT
I’ve just returned from the latest WEF gathering and this year felt a bit different. While sharing a collective sense of positivity to take things forward, many of the leaders also seemed to share an increased sense of urgency and responsibility. There was broad acknowledgement that it’s incumbent on those who have the power to deliver solutions to act now to address the biggest planetary, societal and geopolitical risks facing the world today.
The elements of ESG remained central to delegates and speakers at the WEF, but one topic was front and center – artificial intelligence (AI), described as ‘a driving force for the economy and society’.
AI is here to stay and will have an impact on every one of our lives.
Indeed, in KPMG’s latest CEO Outlook, where we interviewed thousands of leaders across the world, 70% told us AI would be their top investment priority this year. What’s clear is that we’re on the verge of a new AI-driven industrial revolution. Such wide-ranging technology has the power and capability to transform how we live and potentially get the global economy back to a more sustainable growth path, but it is important we also acknowledge the potential risks.
To investigate this a bit further I hosted a roundtable with several of my corporate affairs and sustainability peers where we explored the intersection of AI and ESG and how we can maximize the opportunities created by new technology; while also building the guardrails to mitigate potential ethical, environmental and reputational risks that emerge when new technologies develop with such pace and scale.
One of the guests from the Roundtable, Pepijn Rijvers from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, placed the current momentum in context: it took approximately 40 years from the first computer processing in the 1960s to having desktop computers in most homes; the internet took 20 years from the launch of Windows 95 to achieve what many see as a full break through during the pandemic; conversations on AI started to take shape in 2015 with real breakthrough then coming in 2023. Extrapolate this to 2024 and you can approximate that in four years there will be another breakthrough and then two years after that another one – the content of which we likely haven’t even thought of yet.
Consensus from the roundtable was that AI is, on balance, more a friend than foe with the potential to transform the lives of many and positively support and drive organizational mission and purpose, whether it be driving global connectivity for rural populations, improve the speed of health diagnosis and treatment, or increasing accessibility for people with disabilities.
However, concerns remain that the regulation of AI around the world will struggle to keep up with the pace of change easily. As the technology advances self-regulation will be crucial. Developing and implementing ethical and responsible frameworks surrounding AI will be necessary to help business leaders navigate the legal and ethical risks, while also focusing on transparency, data integrity, accountability and sustainability.
Corporate affairs leaders and teams have a critical role to play in this — helping to shape the agenda and drive proactive and meaningful conversations with external and internal stakeholders. We must become our own experts in the field, working in close collaboration with colleagues from different parts of the business to understand the opportunities, risks, strengths and limitations of the technology and by keeping up to date with market trends, industry happenings and current developments from across the regulatory and legislative landscape. By doing this we will be active and knowledgeable participants in the conversation, helping to drive internal awareness, encourage self-regulation across the business while also ensuring that our teams are developing the skills and capabilities they need to be prepared and ready for the future world of work.
The ability to navigate the external and internal environment and help business leaders to navigate the complexities of this new technology in an ethical, responsible and sustainable way puts corporate affairs at the heart of the conversation.
I am excited about what lies ahead.
Jane Lawrie is global head of corporate affairs at KPMG International