Last week we were in Lisbon attending the biggest tech-summit on the globe, Web Summit! That should be old news to you if you follow us on Instagram or Twitter, because I spammed you big time. But since there is only so much you can share in 140 characters, I decided to write a little wrap-up blog, highlighting some of the key takeaways, best quotes and formulating some questions that matured while being there but weren’t answered by the end of the week.
In general it must be said that 60.000 people is a lot of people, and this makes every step you want to make a very slow one. That’s okay if you don’t mind queuing to get both in ànd out of a stage or wait 30 minutes for a hotdog that is still frozen on the inside. It’s funny that all these 60.000 supposedly digital natives prefer to fly from all over the world to come and queue, sit on crappy plastic chairs and have trouble finding a cab all week while they could just as well stream it from their comfy chair at home, feet in the air, sweatpants on, … I guess there must be something subjective, emotional, unquantifiable that attracts people there,... but don’t tell the scientists I said that.
To give some counterweight to the Techno-optimism-on-speed vibe that ruled Web Summit we also looked for some alternative stages in Lisbon. Traditionally during big conferences, smaller players or critics sort of ride on their wave to try and make alternative voices heard. You have that in a lot of sectors: health, science and now even tech conferences. I’m all for that; I always had a soft spot for the underdog. We found a series of lectures called Human Entities and their line-up was actually pretty impressive. And OMG, I almost forgot: Stephen Hawking was on stage during the opening night! We didn’t have tickets but watched the live stream just as well. #starstruck
Some highlights and takeaways
You could tell every single one of the keynote speakers had watched Black Mirror last year. They even used screencaptures in their presentations. In their talks they were much more cautious about the possible dark side of technology. Although it wasn’t argued very well nor did anybody think through who was responsible for avoiding the dark side. Compared to last year the increase was remarkable.
Margrethe Vestager the European Commissioner for Competition was very positive towards technology and innovation but she did want to see an increase in accountability from the oligarchs like Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon. She is the one who said Apple owed the people of Ireland back taxes totalling a jaw-dropping € 13 billion. That’s called putting your money where your mouth is.
“Society is about people, not technology. Let’s take democracy back!” - Vestager
“We have to send those algorithms to school, teach them our laws and values first.” -Vestager
On the second day we witnessed 2 robots coming on stage, discussing the impact of AI on humanity. Quit the mind-f*ck you could say. We sat there watching Einstein and Sophia having a casual chat, making jokes and laughing (very creepy smile that Sophie has). Ok it was all very predefined probably, but they came across very real. That reminded me of something somebody had said on the alternative stage: that we don’t have to be afraid of robots but rather of ourselves. At some point in time we will make robots so real, and so human-like, that inevitably somebody is going to fall in love with a robot, and demand human rights for that robot, and free time and a pension, … and then we will just be with even more people on this already too crowded planet! A little far-fetched, but interesting to think about.
At the end of their robot-panel discussion Sophia stated “We robots have no desire to destroy things but we will take away your jobs and it will be a good thing, because working is a drag anyway”. Kind of has a point there.
The new learning
On the Future of Learning stage we watched the CEO of Coursera. He made it very clear that our traditional school system was not futureproof. It would always be too slow to follow the developments in the outside world. And when knowledge is just something we will be able to upload to our brains, what’s the use of memorizing vocabulary or trying to learn anything by heart? The focus should be on “learning how to learn”, he said, which will be the most important skill along with flexibility and adaptation. That leaves us to think what robots will do once we’ve uploaded all possible knowledge onto them. What differentiates us from them at that point and how will we redefine intelligence if it’s not ‘memorizing data’. If you think about it, the job market is evolving so fast, that probably half of the jobs you can still study for now will be gone by the time you graduate. If that happens to you, I agree, you better be very flexible. Futurists say that the millennial generation will probably have up to 5 different careers in their work life. Now how does one study for that in 4 years of Uni?
One of the talks I was most enthusiastic about was a Q&A with Joseph Lubin, co-founder of Ethereum and founder of Consensys. If these two words don’t mean anything to you, please check our post about blockchain before you continue reading. It was a short but funny talk, which started with Lubin asking the audience:
“How many people have cryptos?”
And everybody put up their hands (that’s like several thousands of hands). And then he continued asking:
“How many people use cryptos?”
And everybody kept their hands down and started giggling. He pointed out an important distinction here between regular money and cryptocurrencies. It’s still very early stage and might never be used in the same way we use money. But you can’t measure its success by its resemblance to traditional money. That’s the point of a disruptive innovation, it doesn’t improve an existing process; it invents a radically different and better one!
Then he continued talking about how cryptos are considered a bubble by the traditional players like a JP Morgan, but at the same time those guys made the biggest investment in research about blockchain and how they could use it for their own benefit. #suspicious
According to Lubin we are in a positive bubble with cryptocurrencies. He backs that point by talking about the underlying Blockchain technology and how this has become inescapable. Lubin explains how the web 2.0 was all silos and legacy software and now we want new collaborative systems, non-redundant, with a fluid way of building companies and software with and on blockchain. One of the most exciting applications he says is self-sovereign identity (and I fully agree!). In the web 2.0 your identity is broken, stolen and misused. With blockchain it will become encrypted, granular and controlled user-side. Now who doesn’t want that? To him it’s clear: blockchain is going to change everything and tech companies should come out of their silos because it’s time for a new paradigm.
AI, AI, AI, AI, AI, …. AI?
AI was the new absolute and undeniable winner of the buzz-word competition. It was used so much nobody dared to ask what it actually was, and how it works, … while I’m guessing half of the 60k visitors hadn’t got a clue. Sadly, we didn’t see any talks going in depth about Artificial Intelligence or presenting new applications that were already working and sharing some learnings from that. It was all very meta-talk, which is good, as long as it’s not paralysingly apocalyptic or blindingly utopian. One of the better talks on this topic was from Max Tegmark, the author of Life 3.0 (he has a sense for drama, yes). He made a parallel between AI and rockets. He said, “Artificial Intelligence is like rockets, you have to know how to launch, how to steer and how to land before your start flying with them”. Which is a nice analogy, but he is a bit too late stating it I’m afraid. Still, he wasn’t a technophobe; he was very optimistic. According to him, technology could make life flourish for everyone, and not just for the next election cycle but for the next billions of years. He went on asking the intelligent question what intelligence actually was (and my inner philosopher started glowing). Well, what is intelligence? Tegmark says it’s the ability to accomplish complex goals by processing information. But is intelligence really equal to processing information? Computers beat us big time when it comes to processing information, so we would have lost the intelligence-game some time ago. No, there is more to it. I believe that a system that, for example, doesn’t allow illogical or contradicting thoughts can not be considered human. Computers can’t have contradicting thoughts or dilemmas, while we have them all the time. How could we program dilemmas anyway ? Because artificial intelligence is, and will become even more of a black box to us, exceeding us in processing power. Tegmark points out the most important task we have is to match our goals with the goals of AI, making it follow and support our goals. If this is done right it can make us flourish. Ok, thanks Mark. And how do we do that exactly?
Some quotes you can use in a bar to impress people:
In the future, countries will need 2 foreign policies: a physical and a digital one, and they will not always match. @jaredcohen
Some technologies and inventions we really need to get right the first time...Robotics are not like pancakes. If the first one fails it can kill you. @maxtegmark
Blockchain is is a revolution for good, not for money. It’s about changing the world. @josephlubin
Facebook’s mission is to make you spend more time on FaceBook. Slack’s mission is to make you more productive. That‘s it. @StewartButterfield
What’s the difference between a digital nomad and a refugee with a smartphone @mikebutcher of @Techfugees
We need to make sure that every initiative we take actually solves a problem @AOC1978
It was a food-for-the-brain kind of week, which we value and enjoy a lot. But being around so many people makes the average-knowledge-bar drop and keynote speakers adjust to that. So if you actually read one of the books these guys wrote, don’t bother going to their talk; it’s just the short summary. If you want to get an overall feel of what’s happening in tech-ville and catch up some networking while you’re at it, Web Summit is just the place for you.
Like all tech events, when growing bigger all the developers who attended in the beginning start staying home and the marketeers start rolling in, which is not a bad thing per se. You just have to manage your expectations when going to a ‘tech’ event.
Lisbon is very easy on the eyes and the food is to die for. That alone would be a reason to go back. The other 59.999 people are a valid reason not to. We’ll see next year. Maybe we can buy a streaming ticket by then and host a Web Summit at Bagaar! ;)