Web Summit 2017 is the biggest tech conference in the world. Known as “Glastonbury for Geeks,” this year it brought the movers and shakers of the digital world to Lisbon, Portugal – everyone from Fortune 500 companies to groundbreaking startups. The scale is enormous: 60,000 people from 170 different countries, and 1,200 world-class speakers from a broad range of sectors including IT, politics, finance, medicine, media and sport.

Hot topics included Artificial Intelligence (AI), disruptors, crypto-currencies, Blockchain, Millennials, Internet of Things (IoT), connected devices, chatbots, and encompassing everything is data. “Data is the game changer” sums it up for me – how it’s collected, managed and stored, how it’s analysed and used, and how it drives this brave new world of interconnected devices.

The opening address from Jim Breyer, Founder of Breyer Capital, was entitled: “Where to put your money in 2018” – he simply said: “AI, AI, AI.” It’s going to be all about machine learning, deep learning, robots and voice recognition AI such as Siri and Alexa.

logo Web Summit
logo Web Summit 2017 Lisbon Portugal

The only way is ethics

The event started with a Big Bang – a surprise address from Professor Stephen Hawking who explained that success in creating compelling AI, could be the most significant event in the history of civilisation – or the worst. He said: “We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity, but the determination, to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfil our potential, and create a better world for the whole human race.” The speech by Stephen Hawkins set the tone of the conference – we need to carefully consider the ethics and morals of technology in terms of releasing its power for the greater good.

I attended a range of discussions on the ethics and morality of technology: trust, transparency and making tech for the greater good. Using technology to solve the real big-picture issues such as poverty, famine, disease – empowering people through education. One speaker asked the audience who would trust a car driven by AI or a computer? He got a 50/50 response. He explained that vehicles driven by AI will still have accidents and we have to ask ourselves about the morality of the programming. AI in the car will have to make a split-second decision whether to go left and hit a bus, go right and hit a stationary vehicle or go straight-on and hit a wall.

“You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted, or expected, and to think big. We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting, if precarious, place to be and you are the pioneers.”

Professor Stephen Hawking – opening speech at Web Summit 2017

Trust in a connected world

The most thought-provoking talk came from Simon Segers, CEO at ARM who said that the Internet of Things is only just beginning and predicted another one trillion connected devices would be in use by 2035, which would lead us to a world of data – not Big Data but Massive Data. Devices will be anywhere and everywhere – in roads, fields, schools, hospitals and even the ocean all bringing greater benefits to society.

Segers added that the number one barrier to deployments of Big Data and AI is trust – trust needs transparency as data refers to everyone. He said: “There should be a digital social contract for tech companies. An IoT manifesto or public policy for moral and ethical issues in human behaviour.”

He cited the MIT Moral Machine – a platform for gathering human perspective on moral decisions made by machine intelligence. You can browse ethical dilemmas and judge for yourself which outcome is the most morally acceptable.

Techs next big innovation

Name the most significant technological inventions, and you’re likely to include the web browser, the tool that ushered in the internet age and the iPhone, which has made us much smarter in all walks of life. Now we have the next great invention: Alexa and Bots – moving us away from clicking and swiping, returning us to conversations.

In terms of people shaping innovation, first it was Steve Jobs, but now it’s Elon Musk. In the next 10 or 20 years, he will do some big impact things at the human level with his Tesla electric cars, SpaceX which aims to revolutionise space transport and last month he announced plans for a manned mission to Mars by 2024. But the real innovation in the past decade is not the iPhone – it’s lifting up the developing third world with tech, healthcare and education.

It is becoming evident that Silicon Valley no longer has the monopoly on innovation right now – it’s dissipating. London is more functional than San Francisco. The technology hub is moving and now favours cities with urban density and diversity – like London. Check the tech jobs on glassdoor.com – it’s not all about Silicon Valley anymore.

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