The first thing to note about Web Summit is its scale. It is Europe’s biggest tech event, attracting some 22,000 delegates and over 500 speakers from all over the world.
Clearly one of downsides of its scale is the impossibility of being in more than one place at a time (although I’m sure there is probably a tech start up somewhere working on solving this problem as I type) which means the vast majority of the content passes you by.
However, here are my highlights from the talks that I did see.
The AIs are coming!
At the Library Stage, which focused on three issues: control, culture, and ethics, I listened to a fascinating talk by Tim O’Reilly, titled The AIs Are Not Taking Our Jobs.
He has a different perspective to those of Elon Musk et al. Tim’s view is that the excitement of the coming AI revolution is over the top and they are missing the point. We already have idiot savant AIs today which people are dismissing as just computers. Google sending you a notice to leave for work earlier today because the traffic is bad for example.
Technology makes this happen, but it relies on human input to ‘know’ that traffic is bad – real-time traffic updates are based on the speed at which GPS enabled phones are travelling along roads. So for the time being we have the ‘Internet of things and humans’. Another example cited is Google’s self driving car – it looks like an AI, but is powered by Google Streetview, which required a human to drive down the roads to gather the images in the first place.
Tim predicts that increasingly we will be talking to our devices (phones, watches etc.), and the intern will talk back to us.
The question then becomes how can the IA make us smarter and not dumber?
This lead to the main crux of Tim’s talk. As technology get’s better and better and more of our time s freed up by AIs, what should we be doing instead?
He implored developers and start ups to ‘build for how the world should work rather than optimising for how the world does work’. As he sees it, we should be putting technology to work to make human experiences better.
And he suggested that the GOV.UK design principles should be used by anyone in any field.
If we focus on the work that needs doing, rather than just creating jobs, Tim argues that we have an opportunity to build a better economy too.
Tony Hawks on Skateistan
At the Sport Summit stage Tony Hawk talked about the work his foundation does around the world as well as a specific project it supports in Afghanistan. Skateistan is an organisation that connects ‘vulnerable youth to education through skateboarding’. They chose skateboarding because it is an activity that girls can participate in (a woman riding a bicycle in Afghanistan is a deep-seated taboo). Because skateboarding is new to Afghanistan and there are no preconceptions about who does it, the split of girls and boys taking part is 50/50.
Tony then went on to talk about his philosophy when it comes to learning a new trick. His approach is try and fail, try and fail, try and fail until you get it right. After each failure asses what went wrong and then try to correct it on the next attempt. It’s that level of resilience that ultimately led to not only his skateboarding success, but his success in business too.
Also on the Sport Summit stage taking part in a panel discussion about data in sport was Daniel Comolli who is the ex Director of Football at both Tottenham and Liverpool.
It was fascinating hearing how the data collected on players by Prozone is used by Premier League clubs to asses who to buy and who to sell. Comolli claimed it was the data that led to Liverpool selling Fernando Torres to Chelsea in what turned out to be a fantastic bit of business for Liverpool.
Yet, just because you have access to data, doesn’t mean that it will be acted upon. He went on to say that a manager at one of the clubs he worked at (he wouldn’t say who) insisted that the club never bought players that wore gloves! Anyone experiencing this kind of mind set ‘challenge’ in their business should give me a call!
On the Centre Stage I enjoyed an interview between FT Weekend Editor Caroline Daniel and Peter Theil in a wide-ranging conversation which included Theil’s interest in delaying the ageing process.
The discussion on drones covered some really interesting areas including safety and privacy. It also provided my favourite quote of the day from Jay Bregman founder of Halio; “Robots are the new mobile” in terms of the next step in the digital revolution. Drones are coming and, because of a more relaxed regulatory environment, a lot of the development in this field will happen in Europe.
All the talks form the Centre stage are available on YouTube. Well worth a watch.