What we learnt at Web Summit 2017

Our Product Director Leon's key takeaways from the largest tech conference in the world.

Web Summit is huge. In total, including staff, speakers, media and attendees, there were over 81,000 people from 170 countries attending.

I’ve not been to an event quite like it; there was so much going on across a broad range of subjects and areas, that one of the challenges was deciding which talks to attend.

Of the talks that I did see, there were a number of key themes that came out — the biggest of which is that even though we think we’re on the dawn of an artificial intelligence revolution that’s going to change the way we work, live, travel and eat, we shouldn’t forget the human connection; technology should be used to improve humanity and our culture — not replace it.

I’ve summarised these four main themes below with examples from the talks that I saw.

Use our power wisely

The opening night featured a talk from none other that Prof. Stephen Hawking. In his talk he spoke about the great power that we hold and that we should use it wisely, especially when creating machines that could one day think for themselves.

“We hold the key to our future and the perils tech can give us”: Stephen Hawking.

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

 Stephen Hawking

We must act responsibly and ethically, not just in what we develop, but the power that we give to self learning machines. If we give machines the power to think for themselves, we must also equip them with the same ethics that we use today to govern our world.

This was echoed by Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition: “There’s a risk that the algorithms will learn the tricks of the old cartels”. This is a pertinent thought; how do we send AI to law school so that as machines become self learning, they inherit our good values and ethos?

Build for social good

Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel gave a great talk on some of the things that they are building with artificial intelligence and machine learning. There was the usual stuff you’d expect — self driving cars, immersive media experiences and better ways to visualise data but one of the projects really stood out for me  – a drone being used by lifeguards off the Australian coast.

Using vision recognition, the drone could spot people in danger and either alert the authorities or deploy a life saving raft. Intel also showed off the ability to detect a shark from a drone and warn a swimmer or deter the threat.

You can read more about the Intel talk here.

This is just one example of some of the great things being done with technology to help society. There’s a risk that we forget that technology is supposed to enhance our lives and the way that we interact with one another. All too often we see examples of startups and companies striving to re-invent or improve something that isn’t really an issue or doesn’t answer a real need.

Remember the human connection

Continuing on from this thread, Bryan Johnson — the founder of payments company Braintree (who he sold to PayPal), has set up a new venture called Kernel.

Kernel is a neurotechnology company developing an interface to help researchers and clinicians better understand neurological diseases and dysfunctions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression and anxiety.


I’m more concerned about human behaviour than AI. There’s more impact for single individuals creating so much destruction in society before we worry about AI taking over.

Bryan Johnson , Kernel — Rebooting the brain

Bryan poses a great question — “Who is investing in the brain?” Kernel is the first attempt at fixing this. With so many startups focused on automating the boring, labour intensive or more mundane aspects of our lives, Kernel is looking at how we could potentially fix some of the worst things about our society, from the perspective of the human brain.

In the last century, we greatly expanded the notion of what it means to be human. Remarkable innovations in both science and technology brought us to the moon, laid the foundation of the Internet, and cured many of the most pressing diseases that plagued us for eons.

To further explore our own human boundaries, a wave of new technologies needs to emerge that can access, read, and write from the most powerful tool we have — the human brain.

Build the right thing

Finally, Des Traynor co-founder of Intercom gave a brilliant talk around getting the product strategy right.

With the ever increasing availability of computer power, in addition to the array of tools and platforms at our disposal, it’s never been easier to create. However, we need to consider the why. Are we using this ability for the right reasons, to solve the right problems?

Des asks a simple question: “How do we last more than 1 hype cycle?” The answer according to Des is to ensure we have the right product strategy.

The first part of this is to ask “Are we tackling a significant problem?” In other words, one that is big enough and happens frequently enough that users will be willing to invest time and effort to onboard. And big enough to ensure that whatever product is being created actually helps fix it.

To answer this question, we need to consider three things: Viability, Feasibility and Desirability.

As Des explained: there might be a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?

Web Summit was truly fantastic. There was so much to take it, condensing it down into a single article as almost impossible. Even with all of the tech on show and the hyper connected world we live in, the act of people coming together to share experiences and learn something is something that can’t be replace with machines. As Paddy said in his opening speech: “It’s all about the networking” – that’s one of the things that makes WebSummit so special.