Forbes magazine called it “the best technology conference in the planet”. I can’t confirm this, as I don’t usually go to technology events, but I can say without any doubt Web Summit is a very, very good event.
It was held in Lisbon last week for the second time; I had registered many months ago so I found myself one more of the crowd heading to Altice Arena and the FIL Pavilions in the Lisbon quarter of Parque das Nações – where the 98 World exhibition – Expo 98 – was held 20 years ago.
I was a grey day; as we headed towards the registration area rain started to pour down, but nothing deterred the many attendees and soon we were all sitting down in Altice Arena. It felt quite odd as I usually go there for concerts – last time it was in June, on another grey, rainy day – typical of this year’s strange summer – with my friend Gabi for the Queen and Adam Lambert concert. But this time it was different – I was here to learn more about what the future has in store for us, at least in terms of technology, and we all know much of our world today has to do with technology; we depend on it for so many of the things we do, like what I’m doing now, for instance. For years I have not written with pen and paper, but directly to my laptop or even my iPad…even if I won’t give up reading “traditional” books!
The mood was one of great expectation, and the great arena was full. I believe its capacity is of 20.000 people, and I heard somewhere there were almost 70.000 people at the event as a whole. Paddy Cosgrave, CEO and founder of Web Summit made the opening remarks, and there was a huge roar from the crowd as he announced the event will be taking place in Lisbon for another ten years. I also heard he will be moving to Lisbon with his family, which is certainly proof of his commitment to our lovely city.
Among the speakers of the opening session I would highlight Tim Berners-Lee, considered to be “the father of the web”, who talked about the need to establish “a contract for the web”, a set of ethical rules for this virtual world where we all navigate; Lisa Jackson, vice president for Environment, Policy and Social initiatives of Apple, who made a passionate speech about how sustainable companies can, and actually do, make profit, and the brilliant speech of Portuguese United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres (a former Portuguese Prime Minister) who left us with some powerful messages about how to not to use technology, clearly stating his case against the possibility of war weapons solely controlled by robots. I was quite surprised at how changed he is, as, even as Prime Minister he was a discreet, understated man. I suppose his years as High Commissioner for the UNHCR and now as UN Secretary General have turned him into what I saw that day – a superstar!
The following days were fascinating. There were so many things happening at the same time, smaller conferences, meeting points, start-up presentations, social networking…I really had to concentrate on what I wanted most and I betted for the conferences on the subjects that interest me the most regarding my work. I won’t be able to tell you about all I have heard and seen in the past few days, but I would mention a few that certainly impressed me: the ethics of Artificial Intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles and mobility in the cities of the future, the utopian vision of the future vs. the dystopian one (the eternal struggle between good and bad), the internet of smarter things…
I saw a presentation by BMW where the car will no longer be an artefact we use to take us from one place to another, but a companion, one that understands our moods and anticipates our needs. We’ll be able to send orders (such as opening and closing doors) with our Smartphone but this is nothing much when compared to what, when connected to a smart home, it will allow us to do; the car’s system will be able to open or lock doors in our house and interact with all sorts of domestic appliances. Our car will also “know” how to make us more energetic as we drive to work in the morning and how to help us prepare for the day ahead and on the contrary play soft music and adopt a soft driving mood that will allow us to relax on the drive home. It will feel when we are stressed and react accordingly!
Another fascinating presentation was that of a cute little white robot that was quietly sitting next to his owner /creator. As the man talked the robot moved his head as if listening – it was listening in fact. The creator mentioned this is a robot that can be used at home or in the office, to perform some tasks like bringing coffees and packages and newspapers; he added the robot can be totally customised to his owner and, when patting his chin, the eyes in the screen of the little robot’s face lit up with an expression of pure delight! I felt like having something like that at home…
Another presentation by Accenture told us that the personal computers of the future (not so distant) will no longer have keyboards or screens. We will interact with them by voice and gestures, so at this point I imagine myself dictating – rather talking to – my stories to my pc in a few years. The speaker went as far as to say “systems will be radically human, talking, listening, seeing and understanding” – just like us.
I also saw the presentation of Sophia and Han, the Hanson Robotics and Singularity Net human-like robots, but unlike the huge success of last year Sophia was not making much sense in what she said. Han, however, impressed me as to how human his face looked. Much more than Sophia, in fact. Anyway, we felt there is still a long way to go before these robots turn into something like the “replicants” of the Blade Runner 1982 movie – robots with the most human of feelings, that of not wanting to die.
The presentation that impressed me the most was “This is the future” where three teenagers (16, 18 and 15) brilliantly presented their projects – and companies. Ananya Chadha (AnanyaC) is a brain computer interface developer and she showed us how to make objects move by connecting them to her brain through electrodes and a computer (we actually saw her doing it on film!); Ben Nashman, 18, of Synex Medical, is using technology so that our body may give us signals of malfunctioning through chemical and physical biosensors, something that will allow us to prevent diseases, acting before they manifest themselves; finally, Sabarish Gnanamoorthy (WaypointAR), 15 years old, took us on an incredible journey through augmented reality and virtual reality. He told us things such as how through utopia – a virtual world where everything if perfect – humanity can solve several problems, such as transport, where for instance holographic transportation will avoid travelling. He also warned us that by 2011 Virtual Reality will reach an inflexion point, becoming one of the most used technologies in the world.
I could go on and on. I heard about concepts such as the internet of bodies and the internet of thinking, no longer just “of things”; digital peace in a time of cyber war; the importance of mindfulness, resilience and compassion in business; smart surgery; how genomics and precision medicine will bring about the end of some diseases; how AI will transform the way we go to the doctor; “designer babies” and genetic manipulation; and how mobility in the cities of the future will happen through a multimodal transport card that will include all sorts of transport, from autonomous vehicles and scooters to trains and underground, thus allowing us to choose the most efficient and convenient transport for us to get to where we want to go, according of course to information we’ll be receiving in real time. The idea of ownership of vehicles will cease, in a so much more effective and safe sharing economy.
I attended most of the conferences by myself, as each attendee chooses of course those who are most interesting, but I was lucky to discover two girls I know were also attending: one, my neighbour who is a journalist, and the other, who has a lifestyle and fashion blog. It was fun to meet them for lunch or an evening drink, and share our impressions about what was happening around us. My friend the blogger even shared with me that they were giving away very nice cloth bags at the Tommy Hilfiger stand, so I queued there to get mine and it was really worth it!
Finally, the closing session, where our beloved President of the Republic – hugely cheered as usual – Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, left us with three challenges for next year: make each Web Summit better than the previous one; never forget the rest of the society – those not so technology knowledgeable – the old, the poor, the migrants; and finally, that digital is all about opening societies, tolerance and freedom, urging us to use the digital revolution for dialogue and peace; never to bring about exclusion.
I came home feeling excited for all I had heard and learned in the last few days. What an event I thought. Superbly organized, with brilliant minds as speakers, broaching fascinating topics…what a privilege to be there. I certainly look forward to going back next year.