AI, VR and the societal impact of technology: our takeaways from Web Summit 2017

Together with my Digital Innovation colleague Morgan Korchia, I was lucky enough to go to Web Summit 2017 in Lisbon – getting together with 60,000 other nerds, inventors, investors, writers and more. Now that a few weeks have passed, we’ve had time to collect our thoughts and reflect on what turned out to be a truly brilliant week.

We had three goals in mind when we set out:

  1. Investigate the most influential and disruptive technologies of today, so that we can identify those which we should begin using in our business
  2. Sense where our market is going so that we can place the right bets now to benefit our business within a 5-year timeframe
  3. To meet the start-ups and innovators who are driving this change and identify scope for collaboration with them

Web Summit proved useful for this on all fronts – but it wasn’t without surprises.  It’s almost impossible to go to an event like this without some preconceptions about the types of technologies we are going to be hearing about. On the surface, it seemed like there was a fairly even spread between robotics, data, social media, automation, health, finance, society and gaming (calculated from the accurate science of ‘what topic each stage focused on’). However, after attending the speeches themselves, we detected some overarching themes which seemed to permeate through all topics. Here are my findings:

  • As many as 1/3rd of all presentations strongly focus on AI – be that in the gaming, finance, automotive or health stage
  • Around 20% of presentations primarily concern themselves with society, or the societal impact of technology
  • Augmented and virtual reality feature in just over 10% of presentations, which is significantly less than we have seen in previous years

This is reflective my own experience at Web Summit, although I perhaps directed myself more towards the AI topic, spending much of my time between the ‘autotech / talkrobot’ stage and the main stage. From Brian Krzanich, the CEO of Intel, to Bryan Johnson, CEO of Kernel and previously Braintree, we can see that AI is so prevalent today that a return to the AI winter is unimaginable. It’s not just hype; it’s now too closely worked into the fabric of our businesses to be that anymore. What’s more, too many people are implementing AI and machine learning in a scalable and profitable way for it to be dispensable. It’s even getting to the point of ubiquity where AI just becomes software, where it works, and we don’t even consider the incredible intelligence sitting behind it.

An important sub-topic within AI is also picking up steam- AI ethics. A surprise keynote from Stephen Hawking reminded us that while successful AI could be the most valuable achievement in our species’ history, it could also be our end if we get it wrong. Elsewhere, Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0 (recommended by Elon Musk… and me!) provided an interesting exploration of the risks and ethical dilemmas that face us as we develop increasingly intelligent machines.

Society was also a themed visited by many stages. This started with an eye-opening performance from Margrethe Vestager, who spoke about how competition law clears the path for innovation. She used Google as an example, who, while highly innovative themselves, abuse their position of power, pushing competitors down their search rankings to hamper the chances of other innovations from becoming successful. The Web Summit closed with an impassioned speech from Al Gore, who gave us all a call to action to use whatever ability, creativity and funding we have to save our environment and protect society as a whole for everyone’s benefit.

As for AR and VR, we saw far less exposure this year than seen at events previously (although it was still the 3rd most presented-on theme). I don’t necessarily think this means it’s going away for good, although it may mean that in the immediate term it will have a smaller impact on our world than we thought it might. As a result, rather than shouting about it today, we are looking for cases where it provides genuine value beyond a proof of concept.

I also take some interest from the topics which were missing, or at least presented less frequently. Amongst these I put voice interfaces, cyber security and smart cities. I don’t think this is because any of these topics have become less relevant. Cyber security is more important now than ever, and voice interfaces are gaining huge traction in consumer and professional markets. However, an event like Web Summit doesn’t need to add much to that conversation. I think that without a doubt we now regard cyber security as intrinsic to everything we do, and aside from a few presentations including Amazon’s own Werner Vogels, we know that voice is here and that we need to be finding viable implementations. Rather than simply affirming our beliefs, I think a decision was made to put our focus elsewhere, on the things we need to know more about to broaden our horizons over the week.

We also took the time to speak to the start-ups dotted around the event space.  Some we took an interest in like Nam.r, who are using AI in a way which drives GDPR compliance, rather than causing the headache many of us assume it may result in. Others like Mapwize.io and Skylab.global are making use of primary technological developments, which were formative and un-scalable a year ago. We also took note of the start-ups spun out of bigger businesses, like Waymo, part of Google’s Alphabet business, which is acting as a bellwether on which many of the big players are placing their bets.

The priority for us now is to build some of these findings into our own strategy- much more of a tall order than spending a week in Lisbon absorbing.  If you’re wondering what events to attend next year, Web Summit should be high up on your list, and I hope to see you there!

What are your thoughts on these topics? Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Learn more about Aurora, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team, and the topics that we are researching.

Published by

Ben Gilburt

I work within the Sopra Steria Horizon scanning team, identifying the topics that are likely to shape our business and the way we work in the next 3 to 5 years. Outside of work I am a keen musician. Piano is my first instrument and I am currently studying for my grade 7 exam.

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