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Opinion 29 January 2018

Davos in the age of opportunity

Carlos Torres Vila, CEO of BBVA, last week participated in the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, Switzerland. In this article, he explains how artificial intelligence and the global debate over the use of data took up a good part of the debates and discussions at this year’s meeting.

Once a year, Davos hosts a large concentration of world leaders, thinkers and experts to discuss how to build a better world for everyone; this year’s theme was “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Last week, I held meetings with leaders of technological firms, fintech firms, high-level researchers, banks, governments and international organizations. What we talked about most were not so much the geopolitical topics and their economic impact, but the immense opportunities that are opening, thanks to technology and data.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the best examples. We are already beginning to see it in our lives, with the proliferation of “assistants” that understand us and answer complex questions; and with automated translation services. We can already see a host of future services that will be improved by AI: the development of individualized medicines, the identification of people by their voice or face; self-driving cars, or even ways to confront greater challenges such as sustainable development or climate change. At BBVA, we are applying AI to data, in order to help people optimize their spending, predict their movements and reach their vital goals, so that they have greater financial freedom. The potential for reaching this objective is great, as is the possibility of improving processes to prevent fraud, by using forecast mechanisms and advanced forms of monitoring.

One of the most talked-about trends at Davos was the future omnipresence of AI. The devices themselves (cars, electric appliances, lights, furniture) will contain it (AI on the edge), creating a future in which, perhaps, we won’t be so dependent on the mobile phone, because we can talk with all the things that surround us. We’ll recognize them and they’ll recognize us and help us with whatever we need. Also of interest is the growing “democratization” of AI itself. The development of advance models will be within the reach of almost anyone who has training in information technology, without the need to be an expert in AI. That is, as long as they have access to data that allow them to train the AI models.

One of the most important facets of this revolution is that it should be inclusive, that we manage its impact in the working world so that everyone benefits, and we avoid the formation of monopolies or greater concentrations of wealth. It’s clear that greatly reducing the cost of this technology will enable many people to access products and services that up to now were reserved for a minority. With the help of AI, consumers will have a greater capacity to do things for themselves. Other technologies such as blockchain, which was also much-discussed at Davos, could further drive the decentralization of services by eliminating the need for “trusted intermediaries.”


Carlos Torres Vila, CEO of BBVA.

It’s also important that these social benefits do not come at the cost of fundamental rights and liberties. Since data are the authentic raw material of this revolution, it’s important that the value of data be returned to the individual who produces them. That is, data should not only “work on behalf of people,” by helping them to meet their needs; the value of their personal data should belong to them.

At BBVA, we believe that data should only be used for the clients’ benefit, always with their consent, and in a transparent manner

At Davos, we debated the need to set “universal principles” to govern the correct use of data and AI. People should have total, transparent, revocable control over who has access to their data and for what purpose; they themselves should have access to their data whenever they want and it should be protected against potential attacks on privacy; and it’s very important that people benefit from the monetization of their data. Likewise, it’s necessary in many cases, especially in making important decisions (from granting a loan to a medical treatment) to be able to explain the reasons that led to a given decision. This is not so easy with AI, because, unlike traditional algorithms, it’s a black box that’s difficult to interpret. It’s also fundamental to avoid the bias that may exist in our decisions (gender, race, religion, sexual preference, or others) becoming perpetuated in the models that are trained with those data.

The implications of all this for the finance industry are enormous. We can go from being “providers of infrastructure for money,” to having a much more positive, profound impact on peoples’ lives and on businesses. At BBVA, we believe that data should only be used for the clients’ benefit, always with their consent, and in a transparent manner. By applying AI to data, we want to help our customers make the best financial decisions, adapted to their needs and to their personal situations. This is, in essence, the meaning of our purpose, “to bring the age of opportunity to everyone.”

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