Web Summit 2017 Points Toward A More Reflective Tech Crowd

Dan Bieler
Principal Analyst
November 10, 2017

Web Summit 2017 took place from November 7 to 9 in Lisbon. It can come across as a chaotic event without any clear direction, and, as at last year’s Web Summit, there was no single overarching theme. But this is its very strength. Web Summit throws an extremely wide spectrum of topics at you. It is only by listening to many sessions and talking to many attendees from all sorts of backgrounds that a mosaic picture of the state of the technology world can emerge. This picture is always subjective and remains a moving target. My personal main impressions from Web Summit 2017 are that:

  • The hybrid physical-digital reality requires a fresh approach to manage AI. As the physical and digital worlds are merging, we need to answer questions over the type of artificial intelligence (AI) that we want. The most dramatic and somewhat creepy form of this trend can be seen in the merger of robots and AI. Robots Einstein and Sophia made a joint appearance at the event to demonstrate this trend. Max Tegmark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology warned of the risks that AI can bring if the goals of AI-driven machines and humans are not aligned and if AI-generated wealth is not distributed fairly. To mitigate these risks, SingularityNET has been set up. As a platform, SingularityNET offers a free and open market for AI technologies, built on blockchain-based smart contracts. It allows organizations and developers to discover, coordinate, and monetize AI tech.
  • The workspace must reflect the new generation of employees. Simon Cross of Facebook drove this point home when he outlined that by 2020, 50% of employees will be Millennials. This new generation grew up on social media communication tools, and they expect similar tools at work. Such tools help employees to make quicker and better decisions. In turn, this translates into a competitive advantage — for single businesses, industries, and economies. The future workplace depends on communication tools that are open to everybody by default to spread information transparency. Workers are tied to their phones — not their desks. They are expecting all forms of communications, including virtual reality and augmented reality. Employees will use multiple tools for communications. Hence, communication platforms must be interoperable. Communication tools must be all-inclusive to reach those employees, partners, and customers who have been excluded from communications in the past. And AI will assist employees in obtaining more personalized, prioritized, and relevant information as well as access to skills and expertise.
  • A growing willingness to accept a larger role for regulation is building. Margrethe Vestager of the EU pressed home her belief that competition law enforcement is key to drive innovation. She stressed that a few companies — controlling large amounts of data — risk shutting out smaller competitors. Joseph Kahn of The New York Times argued that the ability of digital platforms like Google and Facebook to match aggregated content and demand for the content gives them enormous power to influence public debates. He claimed that no digital platform has thought through what to do with this power, as these platforms were built by tech utopians. Defining these digital platforms as media businesses would open up huge issues in terms regulation. Quentin Hardy of Google Cloud countered any calls for regulation of digital platforms as media businesses by stating that AI can facilitate finding relevant news stories. He stressed that traditional newspapers control the news and tailor it according to their own views.
  • Tangible signs of the next-generation network infrastructure are emerging. According to Intel, the real revolution of 5G relates to the convergence of computing and communications — including cloud computing. Hence, 5G has an impact on devices, data centers, and networks. 5G promises to make networks more scalable, programable, and faster. In addition to autonomous driving, Intel sees major use cases for 5G in the form of drones to set up temporary communication networks; high-definition video streaming in remote areas or developing countries; or public safety services like real-time facial recognition in sensitive public places. John Donovan of AT&T outlined that AT&T supports retrofitting existing networks for real-time communication capabilities via edge computing. As Intel mentioned: The future network will combine many different technologies, including 4G, Wi-Fi, and 5G.
  • A vibrant start-up scene outside Silicon Valley is growing momentum. Start-ups used to rush toward Silicon Valley for funding, talent, and customers. With a greater supply of capital and talent elsewhere in the US and in Europe, the approach of VCs and accelerators toward start-ups is shifting. Nicole Quinn of Lightspeed Venture criticized arrogant selection behavior by many Silicon Valley VCs and accelerators. Yet, as Reshma Sohoni of Seedcamp pointed out, several of Silicon Valley’s establishment VCs are beginning to break their own old-school rules and are investing in start-ups outside Silicon Valley. This point was underlined by Google Venture’s Tom Humle, who emphasized that they are also heavily investing in start-ups in Europe.
  • Unsettled feelings regarding the direction of digital technology are growing. There seems to be a growing consensus that the tech sector must ask itself tougher questions regarding which direction humanity wants technology to take. William Sargent of Framestore communicated the feeling of unsettlement well when he observed how strange it is for Gen Y and Z to simply accept that there is no right to privacy. Similarly, the unease of praising as innovative those platform business models that artificially operate below cost to drive out competition came up repeatedly in panel discussions. The realization of AI translating into the disappearance of millions of jobs is another tricky point. And, of course, fake news was talked about a lot. Fake news is emerging as a business model. The focus on the metric of page views to drive advertising revenues can create a self-reinforcing mechanism as search algorithms favor results of fake news.

The general tone at Web Summit 2017 underlined that the times of blind technology optimism seem behind us. Perhaps the single most important word that I picked up was “responsibility” — or the lack of it. Many speakers stressed that as humanity, we must take responsibility for the implications that digital transformation unleashes and the digital tools that we develop. Still, cautious optimism clearly prevails and will no doubt carry us toward Web Summit 2018.

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