Davos WEF
Davos WEF

Davos disruptors: Rogue robots, gene weapons

Disruptors: Biggest market-mover of 2015?
Disruptors: Biggest theme of 2015?

Reading the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Risk Report, you'd be forgiven for thinking the world was heading for an Hollywood-style apocalypse.

The organization warned that people "designing bespoke viruses as murder weapons" while computers turning rogue, are among the biggest threats to the world in 2015.

As world leaders gather in Davos, Switzerland, for WEF's annual meeting, CNBC takes a look at five of this year's key themes in its "5 in 15" series, including disruptive technology, as advances in science and artificial intelligence (AI) make rapid strides.

DIY 'weapon of mass destruction'

The manufacture of synthetic organisms – including man-made viruses – is one of WEF's biggest worries thanks to the rise of so called "DIYBio" enthusiasts or "biohackers" – people who carry out genetic experiments at home.

Synthetic biology goes beyond just modifying an existing gene and instead involves creating brand new DNA that can do whatever the scientist wants, something that is both an opportunity and concern for WEF.

"The terror possibility is especially pertinent because synthetic biology is "small tech" – it does not require large, expensive facilities or easily-tracked resources," WEF said in its Global Risk Report.

"Conceivably, a single rogue individual might one day be able to devise a weapon of mass destruction – a virus as deadly as Ebola and as contagious as flu. What mechanisms could safeguard against such a possibility?"

Biohackers groups have popped up around the world and there is a International Genetically Engineered Machines competition for student which showcases biological inventions that are open-source and available to anyone.

One genetics expert told CNBC that DIYBio groups are a good move forward, but need to be more tightly regulated.

"I think they should exist but they should be regulated because the chances are they make a mistake because they are not mature and we want to protect them and make sure that they know the procedure," Patrick Yizhi Cai, co-director of the Edinburgh Genome Foundry, said in a phone interview.

Machines stealing jobs

Also at the forefront of the WEF's mind is AI. The institution recognizes the achievements in the area from Apple's Siri to Google's driverless cars, but what happens when the machines deviate from their initial design?

"Contrary to public perception and Hollywood screenplays, it does not seem likely that advanced AI will suddenly become conscious and malicious," WEF said, but warned on grey area that is accountability for when things go wrong with machines.

Giving the example of autonomous weapons that choose to fire without human intervention, the report questions who is accountable if it violates international law. Fully autonomous weapons have not yet been deployed, but rudimentary versions have been tested.

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And as if unemployment in parts of the global economy isn't bad enough, machines will take over our jobs leading to "structural unemployment" that "may be permanent", according to WEF, as economies struggle to absorb the unemployed. Around 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be lost to computers over the next two decades, according to a 2013 study published by Oxford University.

This pessimistic outlook has been countered by one AI expert, who believes that historical shifts in technology show that the modern economy will adapt, leaving time for people to take on other types of roles to help society.

"History suggests that where automation is available the market will reach out for it and the question is what new kinds of employment and work arise from that," Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton, told CNBC by phone.

"It is not that we will all end up flipping burgers but that more of us will have more time to do more work in different areas – social care, education. There are other ways of creating wealth."