Reflections on Web Summit 2017: technology for a better future

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Imagine a massive music festival - now swap the artists for speakers, the daytime entertainment for hustling start-ups and just keep the food trucks. With 60,000 visitors the Web Summit is best known as the Olympics for geeks, and, this year, the geeks turned out in force.

Last month, we took the plane to Lisbon, Portugal to visit the Web Summit: Europe’s biggest tech conference. It’s our fifth visit to the conference so we made sure to bring empty bags in a quest to fill them with a good portion of inspiration. Knowing the Web Summit we expected to find loads of new technologies, futurists, and start-ups that were breaking the mould while chasing investors. But this year, the summit brought us more.

Whereas in previous Web Summits the tech community spoke about what we could do in itself, this year was all about what tech should do to fix the world.

Maybe it’s my own wishful thinking, but I had the strong impression that the summit wasn’t so much about possibilities, as it was about necessities. The necessity to innovate towards what people need, instead of what we want. As Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman put it: “Build something people like to use. A lot of businesses start off wrong and forget the most important thing: create value for people and business will follow.”

Responsible use of technology

The first person to take the stage and open the event was physics professor Stephen Hawking. He was invited to shine his light on Artificial Intelligence (AI) during the opening night, and pointed out the need for responsible use of technology: "Computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence, and exceed it. Unless we learn how to prepare for and avoid the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy. "

When used responsibly, AI holds loads of opportunities for good: " I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the good of the world. That it can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management, and prepare for its consequences well in advance.”

AI to ban fake news or identify cyber-bullies

There were more than 1,200 speakers at the Web Summit and it was impossible to see them all. One that stood out for me was Jared Cohen (Google Jigsaw), who spoke about the possibilities of using AI and big data to track who is spreading what online and why. He mentioned the issues of fake news and how propaganda spreads via fake profiles and how AI can help us clarify sources. He predicted that the next major war will start online as international country-to-country relations that appear to be friendly offline, tend to be way less friendly online. See it as cyber-bullying for pros.

Decentralizing AI power

Besides the talks on ‘regulating AI for good’ and ‘creating AI that enables us to track the authenticity of content’, Dr. Ben Goertzel took a different approach when demonstrating how utilizing AI in a smart manner, could lead to better and more equal and honest services for people. His talk was also one of the most entertaining ones as he introduced us to Sophia the robot.

Sophia had just received Saudi Arabian citizenship of which she had to point out to the other ‘person’ on stage: Einstein, at least the robot version. Dr. Ben Goertzel, led the conversation between the two and took the stage to launch his new project: SingularityNET.

SingularityNET is a free and open market for AI technologies, built on smart contracts in the blockchain. He argued that AI by itself can never be as powerful and smart as AI combined within the Blockchain. With his new project he aims to connect individually developed AI to one another, and teach them how to work together to create better use of AI for people. With this platform he aims to build a decentralized AI economy where users can create, combine and monetize AI technologies at scale. Quite a big dream, but he was on stage with two robots so it felt legit.

Self-driving cars

Next to futurists like Dr. Goertzel, the Web Summit hosted loads of disruptors whose approach were based around practical challenges: like flooded roads. One of them was Waymo, an Alphabet company. They took the stage to talk about the future of mobility.

"We're not building a better car, we're building a better driver," said Waymo CEO, John Krafcik. He announced that Waymo has deployed roughly 100 vehicles on public roads without human drivers, saying: "When people feel confident and comfortable in a fully self-driving vehicle, more of us will want to use them in our daily lives."

He announced that Waymo will launch their own ‘self-driving car’ hailing app in the near future. Waymo predicts that the way we look at cars will change radically by the acceptance of self-driving cars. That the use of cars will change from cars that bring you from A to B, to cars that solve a human need: a car you use for meetings, to sleep in or to dine in.

Climate change

The Web Summit kicked-off with Hawking’s call for responsible use of technology, and it ended with one as well. Al Gore took to the stage and raised the responsibility bar: "My purpose here is to recruit you to be part of the solution to the climate crisis. You can have a bigger impact than practically any other group in the entire world."

Al Gore held his speech in three chapters, the first being: should we change? To which his answer was yes, backed up by an overwhelming number of facts involving the changing climate. The second chapter was: can we change? According to Al Gore, tech is already making the world a better place. It is helping refugees integrate into society, creates renewable energy, it is empowering people with disabilities, and connecting communities. "Our world is now in the early stages of a sustainability revolution... that has the speed of the digital revolution,” said Gore.

Will we change? Speaking in front of the largest tech community in the world, recruiting them to join his cause, the crowd responded gregariously with cheers and applause. It seems to me that his recruitment quest succeeded.

Technology to create a better future

Being at the Web Summit it felt that the tech industry as a whole seems to be working towards a collective goal of doing good. Where during the last two decades the mass adoption of technology has exploded across the fields of Communication and Entertainment, it now seems to be moving towards creating a better world. Big thinkers like Steven Hawking call for responsible use of technology, and disruptors like Uber with its flying cars or Waymo with self-driving cars, aim to solve collective mobility problems.

Earn attention rather than pay for it

Working in communication, I thought about how these insights impact our work with brands. I strongly feel that have reached a certain level of tech maturity and tolerance, it is time to start solving some real problems. Brands should look at the tech industry and learn to start doing things that earn attention rather than to pay for it. Much like the disruptors at the Web Summit, brands should take a step back, go back to their roots and solve a basic human need.

Stef de Jong is the founder and owner of Likefriends