Trending: Top schools for AI: New study ranks the leading U.S. artificial intelligence grad programs

Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff speaks at the Davos World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 17, 2017. (Via webcas

“This year, my heart has been with so many migrants and refugees, 65 million refugees across the world, and thinking about how they’re going to get back to stability and homes,” Benioff said during the hour-long discussion on “Preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

RELATED: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella gets the message about AI’s down side for jobs

“I think now about how artificial intelligence will create digital refugees and how people will be displaced from jobs, tens of millions of people across the planet, because technology is moving forward so rapidly. . . . So companies, individuals have to decide are we going to be committed to improving the state of the world? We’re at a crucial point right now.”

He said the Fourth Industrial Revolution includes rapid advances in cloud computing, mobile computing, AI, genetic engineering —”all these things are happening all at once.” In just the past few months, AI has moved especially quickly, gaining “the ability for the software to learn more rapidly than we expected,” he said.

When asked by moderator Ngaire Woods, Dean of Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, what should be done about such digital refugees, Benioff replied, “Throughout history, technology has displaced workers, but then workers have the opportunity to be trained. . . . We need to have start having very serious conversations, multi-stakeholder dialogues, where we bring together corporate leaders, government leaders, social leaders, NGOs. Only through that are we going to get an answer. There is no clear path forward.”

Later he elaborated that new models of education could help, including vocational training. So could dedicated educational projects underwritten by technology companies,he said. Amazon Web Services recently launched such a project: a training program in the UK for ex-military and low-income youth.

Left to right: Ngaire Woods, Dean of Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government; Shu Yinbiao, chairman, State Grid Corporation of China; Mary Barra, chairman and CEO of General Motors; Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director, Reliance Industries Limited; Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO, Salesforce; and Vishal Sikka, CEO of Infosys. (Via webcast)

Technology can benefit humanity, but it can also increase the divide between haves and have-nots, the participants agreed. AI’s impact in particular “is staggering,” said Vishal Sikka, CEO of Indian IT consultancy Infosys, but it risks leaving a big swath of humanity behind. “We need to be careful that the technology we build today is in service to everyone,” he said.

Turning to other topics, Woods noted that technology has created “echo chambers where people hear only their own opinions.” She queried the panel, “Is there a technology solution for that?”

The answer appeared to be no, because despite rapid development in many areas, software isn’t progressing fast in others. Collaboration technology to help achieve a shared perspective “is still in its infancy,” even though it’s been under development for 30 years, Sikka responded.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution refers to a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. It’s the basis of a recent book by Prof. Klaus Schwab, the forum’s executive chairman.

Separately, Benioff told CNBC in Davos that Salesforce spent about $5 billion on acquisitions in the past year and will continue to look at any “exciting” opportunities.”

[Editor’s Note: Salesforce is a GeekWire annual sponsor.]

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline


Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.