On the opening night of this year's Web Summit, Sir Tim Berners-Lee issued a rallying call for “an internet that serves the people and serves the planet.” If 2017’s conference was characterised by soul-searching, the 2018 edition, which took place in Lisbon last week, delivered a sense of an industry that’s ready to roll up its sleeves, move fast and fix things.
Here are some of the emerging future themes that emerged from four days’ exploration of the promise of tech.
Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web as a democratic tool for free expression, and now sees it besieged by disinformation and clickbait. In a discussion about how to address the rise of fake news, the panel pondered how we might rebuild trust in a digital world when alternative facts and fake news have been weaponised.
With little collective faith in the potential for regulation (“a level of government engagement we’re not anywhere near today” said Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker), the Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić called for education that teaches “kids how to think, not what to think.” Guardian Media Group chief exec David Pemsel agreed but put the onus on tech platforms to do more to tackle the issue and “put some engineering resource to answer some of these societal problems.”
Several startups at Web Summit were showcasing solutions, among them FactMata, a runner up in this year’s pitch competition. The London-based company is using human-assisted AI to score digital content in real-time for quality, credibility, reliability, and safety in a bid to restore some trust to the web.
The growth of AI is driving an unprecedented surge in data that will soon challenge our storage capability. At the DeepTech stage, Hyunjun Park, chief executive and co-founder of digital data storage company Catalog poetically observed, that by 2025, there will be more bytes than there are “stars in the observable universe.” Using conventional storage media, we will be able to cope with just 12.5% of that.
Catalog's solution is to store data in synthetic DNA, which is stable, easily copied, and dense. So dense in fact, that you could take the contents of a large data centre “and carry it around in your pocket” says Park.
What seems like a highly futuristic idea was conceived decades ago, but the cost of synthesising DNA proved a major hurdle. Catalog has devised a cheaper and faster solution and having delivered its proof of concept, the start-up hopes to offer an industrial scale storage platform in three to four years.
Disrupting human health
Tech is driving unprecedented progress in health and genomics is “one of the greatest promises of the future,” according to Lisa Alderson, chief exec of digital health company Genome Medical. At a HealthConf session titled DNA Disruption, Alderson was interviewed by Ananya Chadha, who at the tender age of 16 is already an expert in both gene editing and brain computer interfaces.
Alderson explained that the power of genomics comes in better understanding our predisposition to disease as well as in delivering more accurate diagnosis and selection of the right therapy.
Within the next three to five years, she predicts that genomics will be used to inform better care for all cancer patients, and that the era of precision medicine ushered in by genomics will mean that not only will cancer be treated far more effectively, it will be largely eradicated. Surveillance-phobes look away now: Alderson believes that every single one of us on the planet will have our DNA sequenced within the next fifteen years.
Cities of the Future
As the world grows more urban, cities are struggling to manage traffic and congestion, as well as urban pollution. One solution could be to take to the skies. Remo Gerber, chief commercial officer of Lilium Aviation, painted a vision of a world where affordable commuter flights are an everyday reality.
The Lilium Jet is an electric vertical take-off and landing craft (eVTOL) that promises to be clean, quiet, and emission-free. Capable of transporting five people at a speed of 300KM per hour, the jet requires only a small pad for landing and take-off, thus offering great potential as an intercity mobility service.
“You can travel in a totally new way in just 10 minutes between San Francisco and Palo Alto” says Gerber, “and that for the same cost as it would be in an in an Uber or a Lyft ride.”
As more people live and commute from further afield, satellite towns in the orbit of key business centres would be reinvigorated, and cities would become cleaner, less crowded, and more affordable to live in.
Fixing the Planet
Sustainable living is now high on the agenda for governments and businesses alike and this was reflected in the Web Summit programming, with more than forty talks, panels and workshops exploring sustainability concepts in everything from energy to farming to fashion.
Patagonia has long pioneered this space and a keynote from vice-president Rick Ridgeway proved a highlight on the Planet: Tech stage. Ridgeway explained Patagonia’s recent foray into foods as an opportunity to explore regenerative farming techniques that sequester carbon from the air. “If maybe half of the world’s production of food converts to these regenerative techniques” said Ridgeway, “that alone could get atmospheric carbon back to pre-industrial levels.”
Apple vice-president Lisa Jackson shared some of the business’s green initiatives with the Centre Stage audience on opening night, including the conversion of every Apple facility to renewable energy and the adoption of non-extractive manufacturing methods. The newly launched Mac Book Air for instance, is made with 100% recycled aluminium.
Jackson, who took the opportunity to underline Apple’s commitment to the Paris Agreement, delivered a clear message for global business: "There is no conflict between a healthy planet and a healthy bottom line."
Marie Stafford is European director, for the innovation group at J. Walter Thompson