Zurich’s main train station
There are quicker ways to get there that involve fewer plane rides and a direct commute from Zürich either by car or by helicopter charter — but regardless of which route you take, the Swiss fortress remains remote and tucked away. The airport-level security at every entrance to the Congress Centre also helps to make it an ideal hideout for the elite to safely, and securely, come to talk shop for a week each winter.
But the long and winding road to Davos offers another lesser-known benefit, which makes the lengthier commute well worth the while.
This year’s trek to a village 5,100 feet above sea level was replete with inside scoops on the topics and people comprising the lineup of the 54th edition of the World Economic Forum.
Here’s what was overheard on the connecting trains from Zurich Airport to Davos Platz.
When it comes to taking the Swiss National Railway from Zürich Hauptbahnhof to Davos Platz, riding in a second-class car trumps first any day.
The cloth seats are just as worn and the colors just as faded, but the pews are packed with chatty journalists and WEF participants all keen to chat.
Clad in a uniform accoutrement of snow boots, fur-lined parkas and pom beanies, these enthusiastic forum goers offer a look at the issues that are actually top of mind for participants joining this year’s forum, dubbed “Rebuilding Trust,” which kicks off on Monday morning.
Virtually every conversation started with: “You here for Davos?” before the inevitable retort: “Me too.”
Generative artificial intelligence, including scoops over what actually led to the corporate upheaval at ChatGPT-maker OpenAI and the failed ouster of its founder Sam Altman, led the rhetoric.
First Class car on train from Zurich to Davos
In November, a consortium of investors and OpenAI employees compelled OpenAI to take back Altman as its chief executive officer, following his surprise firing. His return as CEO coincided with the departure of board members who had voted him out.
The incident played out over the course of just a few days.
It laid bare multiple points of vulnerability at the startup that’s reportedly valued at $86 billion, including an unusual corporate governance structure that weakened its C-suite, as well as the fact that its biggest backers, including Microsoft, had no board seat and very little say in monumental strategy decisions for the company.
Many are still hoping to hear from Altman directly with the unfiltered version of what led to his sudden dismissal.
OpenAI’s media representative declined CNBC’s request to interview Altman in Davos, citing a “tight” schedule.
The reinstalled OpenAI CEO will, however, appear on stage Thursday in a panel dealing with questions of safety as technology continues to intertwine with our daily lives.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, as well as Pfizer‘s chief Albert Bourla are among the voices rounding out the session — but many are specifically anxious to hear from Altman on the November shakeup at his company.
Another traveler on the train was using Davos as an opportunity to recruit on-stage talent for an AI conference being held in Saudi Arabia in March.
Meanwhile, the question of intellectual property rights and licensing in the AI sector more broadly has also captured the attention of WEF attendees this year.
The New York Times sued OpenAI and Microsoft in December over alleged copyright infringement and abusing the newspaper’s intellectual property in order to train large language models.
One Davos attendee noted their company was in the IP space and had just raised this summer, because “the rights issue is so complicated.”
Restricted airspace around Davos, Switzerland
Cantonal Police, Grisons
There is speculation that data owners, including news publications, as well as X (formerly Twitter), Reddit, Disney, and other content creators could potentially establish licensing deals with the companies who need source material to train their LLMs.
This year, the WEF has heavily skewed its programming docket toward AI. In its “Global Risks Report 2024” survey released on Jan. 10, the survey found that disrupting election outcomes tops the list of the biggest risks in 2024 from AI.
In its ranking of the 10 biggest risks in the next two years, AI-derived misinformation and disinformation was placed above climate change, war and a weak global economy.
The 8-minute train transfer at Landquart Station typically involves bobbing and weaving among locals carrying skis hoisted over their shoulders and poles re-purposed as canes for balance support.
The switch also offers the chance to shuffle the deck and start the conversation fresh with a new cast of characters.
Financial products for sustainability, including generating hydrogen through electrolysis on demand, as well as the fintech ecosystem in Brazil and the so-called “next one percent” featured in snippets of chats on the commute up the Alps, as well.
But as oversized suitcases aimlessly slipped the grasp of their owners and snaked down the aisles, the focus on after-hours programming on the sidelines of the WEF topped the agenda.
One person returning to the conference said they weren’t being forced to get up early this time around, so they would “do” Davos “better” this year.
Another wondered whether an exclusive cocktail reception might require the infamous and highly coveted white badge, which grants the wearer practically unlimited access to all that the forum has to offer.
“Do you need to have a white badge?” this person wondered aloud to the group. “Can you guys smuggle me in?”
One traveler reminisced about having breakfast at the same place as Sting last year. The musician had performed at an invite-only event hosted by Microsoft last year, the night before the company laid off 10,000 people.
Another takeaway: Not locking the door to apartment rentals after issues with keys in years past.
Getting around town was another concern.
You can get virtually anywhere you need to go in Davos in less than 30 minutes on foot, even in the snow. More often than not, almost everything is just a few blocks away on downtown’s iconic Promenade.
It’s not as easy as you think to get an Uber, one person recounted of years past. And with taxis, there are either none to be found or they swarm all at once, leading to a traffic jam.
Someone said they had learned their lesson after paying $40 for a short Uber ride back from an evening event in Davos. From now on, they’ll always be walking home — even in the arctic weather.