The world’s political and business leaders, plus the usual smattering of celebrities – including Leonardo DiCaprio – are heading to Davos, the Swiss Alpine resort where the World Economic Forum’s annual conference begins on Tuesday evening. The ensuing four days of debate will focus on the following themes:
The rise of the robots
The relentless rise of automation and ever more intelligent machines will be a key issue at the WEF.
The official theme of the 2016 meeting is “mastering the fourth industrial revolution”. That, in WEF-speak, means the “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres”.
For some Davos attendees, this means business opportunities. Top executives such as Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg will debate how the new industrial revolution could improve industry and society.
But Davos will also look at the threat to white collar jobs, asking if the changes are “failing the middle classes”. Another question is whether we are heading towards “a world without work” – a serious issue given that some experts reckon one in two jobs could eventually be taken by intelligent automation.
More than 7m jobs are at risk in the world’s largest economies over the next five years, according to a WEF report published on Monday, with women losing out more than men as they are less likely to be working in areas where the adoption of new technology will create jobs.
And if the daily trudge through icy Davos does not provide enough shivers, attendees will be told the implications of smart machines going to war. Sir Roger Carr, the chairman of defence giant BAE Systems, will discuss whether robots will become soldiers and generals, along with experts such as Prof Alan Winfield of the University of the West of England.
Terrorism and the migration crisis
World leaders and the heads of humanitarian agencies will debate how to address the growing migration crisis and better integrate refugees into the communities who shelter them.
Queen Rania of Jordon will discuss the Middle East turmoil driving millions overseas, as desperate people continue to risk the winter cold and storms by crossing the Mediterranean. The leaders of Iraq and Tunisia are also attending.
The EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, and the French minister Emmanuel Macron are to consider whether Europe has been pushed to a tipping point by the crisis and discuss recent terrorist attacks.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, is giving a keynote speech. Last year, he delivered an electrifying talk on the need to tackle violent extremism and the “monsters” of Islamic State.
But it is not just talk. Delegates can choose to be jolted out of their comfortable existence by spending an hour experiencing a day in the life of a refugee. This has become a regular event at Davos, with some people being moved to tears by a taste of the trauma felt by displaced people. Some former refugees are also on hand to share their stories.
Angela Merkel won’t be signing up, though. With criticism over her refugee policies rising by the day, the chancellor is skipping this year’s event. So Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, will be carrying the black, red and gold flag instead.
The stock market rout of 2016 has already made a small dent in the large fortunes of the Davos elite. So there will be plenty of nervous chatter about whether we are heading into a new crash – and whether it can be fended off.
The big worry, of course, is China, with its slowing economy and swelling credit levels. One of the Chinese government’s top market regulators, Fang Xinghai, will update the global elite on wherethe economy is heading, alongside the IMF chief, Christine Lagarde.
Jack Ma, the head of Chinese online retailer Alibaba, could also be in demand for his insights.
With crude prices falling below $30 per barrel, the energy ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait will talk publicly about how Arab economies can reform to handle cheap oil.
Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri, is to discuss how emerging economies could suffer from the turmoil. Macri has just experienced his own painful shock; he is nursing a cracked rib after an incident playing with his daughter.
No fewer than 10 central bank governors are descending on the ski resort, a chance to consider whether they will need to do more to help the global economy this year.
The WEF hopes to build on the Paris climate deal, agreed in December, by examining how governments and businesses can work together to cut carbon emissions.
Its annual risk survey found that failing to deal with and prepare for climate change is the biggest single threat facing the world economy. This is the first time in more than a decade that environmental issues have topped the list of worries.
A string of top scientists will be providing technical expertise on how to tackle global warming and create cleaner energy. This includes the Solar Impulse team, which broke the world record for the longest solo flight in an un-refuelled vehicle last summer.
DiCaprio will also be pushing for action; his foundation helps protect threatened ecosystems and funds projects to shield wildlife from the impact of climate change.
Turmoil in the Middle East and in the markets has pushed the eurozone debt problems down the agenda.
But it still provides hope of a verbal punch-up, when the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, and the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, discuss the future of Europe. Memories of last summer’s crisis, where Tsipras was forced into a painful third bailout deal, are still fresh.
Tsipras is also expected to meet with Lagarde. On the agenda: debt relief and pension reforms.
The European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, will be giving his own assessment of the eurozone economy on Friday morning, fresh from a governing council meeting the day before.
David Cameron is also attending; Davos could give him an opportunity to push for EU reform ahead of Britain’s referendum on membership. But he could also have his ear bent by business leaders who fear a UK exit.
The wealthy few
This annual gathering of the global elite is a perfect opportunity to remind them about wealth inequality.
Oxfam already got the ball rolling before some Davos attendees had even reached the ski resort, with a new report warning that wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small group of billionaires.
Save the Children will warn that the fourth industrial revolution risks deepening the gap between rich and poor. That is because automation can destroy job opportunities for those with few educational qualifications, hollowing out labour markets in the developing world.
The US vice-president, Joe Biden, is heading to Davos to push his “moonshot” initiative to find a cure for cancer.
Biden, leading a heavyweight US delegation, will meet with top scientists, doctors and data researchers in an attempt to speed up the fight against the disease which claimed his son Beau in May 2015.
Last week, Biden said “cancer politics” were holding back progress and called for more data sharing about patient information and treatment outcomes. Davos is an opportunity to push that message.
Ebola will also be on the agenda. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is expected to announce an agreement with pharmaceuticals company Merck to help prepare for the next outbreak. Last summer, tests showed that Merck’s experimental ebola vaccine was 100% effective in providing immunity to a disease that killed more than 11,000 people last year.
But the world will always face new threats: Bill Gates is to lead a discussion on how to prepare for the next pandemic.
Cybercrime and civil liberties
Davos will see a clash between the authorities, which want closer control of our digital communications, and campaigners, who fear privacy is being eroded.
The US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, and Jürgen Stock, the head of Interpol, will be pushing for closer partnerships with companies and new laws to catch cybercriminals across the globe.
Salil Shetty, the secretary general of Amnesty International, is due to talk about how privacy and secrecy has changed in a world of digital communication and new terrorist threats.