‘You Guys Here for the Web Summit?’


‘You Guys Here for the Web Summit?’

Bronwyn Hogan, Creative Director, VTQ

As I awaited departure from Dublin airport for Lisbon on a dismal November morning, I noticed through eyes that were hazy with sleep that the group of people boarding my flight were not your regular holiday-goers.

They were working from laptops and switching between cameras, phones and tablets. They were the tech industries finest and bound for what has become the largest tech conference in the world.

The Web Summit was about to take over Portugal’s capital city in the days to follow. The flight itself further cemented my theory of the group’s industry origins as they were clearly seasoned travellers which were acclimatized to working in airports and on flights — using technology to suit their schedule and not adhering to common working practices from before the digital age.

Like everything in the digital domain, the main aim is to immerse the user in an experience. For most Web Summit attendees, especially those travelling from other countries, that experience had begun in the arrivals hall of the airport.

Once I had my bag and made my way through the arrivals gate I was greeted with the usual swarms of people one should expect.

I was easily able to pick out the Web Summit employees on hand to usher people towards the registration tent.

Case in one hand and open Web Summit app in the other, I made my way to registration passing an app support team and freestanding Web Summit sign that I would soon come to find situated in various footfall-heavy places around the city.

In the short walk to registration, it had been made very clear to me that the Web Summit was not just a conference and it most certainly was not confined to the arena.

It was an experience and the electric atmosphere was contagious. Networking could take place just about anywhere as it was a safe bet that at any one point someone in your vicinity was an attendee. If you weren’t sure, a quick glance at their right wrist for the band would confirm.

My first of many introductions was in a Starbucks where conversations were struck up amongst people waiting for their drinks. People mainly wanted to know where you had come from and why you were there.

Attendees hailed from over 170 countries. Reasons ranged from investment to recruitment to industry awareness. The Web Summit would be equipped to satiate every need and want.

A highly anticipated talk was that delivered by Uber’s CPO Jeff Holden, who was the first to speak on centre stage on day 2. Before taking the stage, Uber had been introduced as one of the fasted growing companies of our time.

This had set a tone that something big was coming during the talk to follow and what followed did not disappoint. During this talk Uber had announced UberAir.


An urban aviation solution that would take traffic off the streets and transport people throughout cities in a cost-effective and time-effective manner.

While urban aviation is going to be ground breaking in the coming years, one must be held responsible for any negatives which may come along with it. With transportation, the main negative being pollution, however, not in this case.

As the prototype vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft was showcased on the centre stage screens, Holden stated that the VTOL aircrafts which would be capable of lateral and horizontal movement would be electrical: ‘We have to combat climate change, not accelerate it.’ This aircraft design, per se, is not a new design, however, it is improved upon a design for an aircraft from years ago that was run on fossil fuels.

This aircraft is an updated, sleeker and energy efficient multi-person carrier which will be taking to the Los Angeles airspace in 2020. But surely it will carry the costs of domestic air travel?

That’s not necessarily Uber’s vision. The aim of the UberAir travel is to reduce the price for air traffic so significantly that making a trip in your own car will cost more. To share a flight across the city will eventually cost as much as an UberX.

Airspace Management

The vision is that this will be the beginning of the end of individual car ownership. The only reason for owning a car would be a hobby. The fact that flying cross-city could be cheaper than driving a car is a watershed moment.

While we have a system in place for ground transportation, how does a ground transportation company suddenly manage air traffic if we see a sharp uptake in urban air travel?

Leaving this question on the audience’s mind to linger for a few moments, Jeff Holden announced a partnership between Uber and an organization that needs no introduction on a global stage: NASA.

The strategic partnership for airspace management between one of the fastest growing companies in the world and America’s space agency solidified UberAir as a ground-breaking initiative.

During the presentation, Holden showed a clip from the 1982 Blade Runner movie, where a flash forward scene to a dystopian and dismal Los Angeles saw flying cars whizzing around on screen.

This scene was depicted to be taking place in 2019, one year earlier than when Uber will begin flying their vehicles around Los Angeles. What seemed so farfetched in 1982 has very much become the reality of today.

Innovation has brought us on in leaps and bounds and the future is no longer in 30 years, the future has arrived.

Artificial Intelligence

In keeping with the theme of transportation, not one, but two self-driving cars had taken to centre stage from Intel and Waymo. Another display of how AI can benefit humans when driver-less vehicles commonplace.

Intel and Waymo

While the first reaction to autonomous machines is that they are serving the purpose of replacing humans, it can take people a second to step back and realize that they can also provide us with a better quality of life.

The most prominent case made was that by John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo. Using this software and sensor technology, these driverless vehicles aim to improve the transportation of people and goods.

Krafcik made the point that a significant and upsetting moment in someone’s life can be when they have their licence revoked due to age or sight.

These vehicles can be used to help us maintain independence and not rely on others for mobility. In explaining how self-driving cars will be a part of everyday life in years to come, Krafcik demonstrated that developments like this ‘make extraordinary, completely ordinary’.

A common misconception when Artificial Intelligence is spoken of is that the introduction of AI powered machinery will replace the human in day-to-day working roles. Although this may be true in some cases, former Intel CEO Brian Krzanich showed how the use of AI and drones can improve certain working situations.

One scenario shown on centre stage at the Web Summit was how lifeguards on beaches with shark-infested waters can use AI-equipped drones to prevent attacks or decrease the risk of attacks.

These drones fly out from the beaches and attempt to identify sharks in the water nearing the beach with an aerial view. When recognized, the drone can then drop a shark repellent into the water in an attempt to divert the course of the threat. Krzanich’s real life example highlights how omnipresent AI can enrich and protect our lives.

The Waymo and Intel talk helped to dispel AI myths and reservations some people may harbor, It was impressive to see how these leaders grasped at the opportunity to make their case for AI on one of the world’s biggest tech stages and put the general public’s mind at ease about adopting AI.

This leads us onto our next point. While some of the talks had seen thought leaders and engineers discuss the positives of AI, none was more convincing than that of the two AI-enabled robots taking to the stage for a discussion, mediated by Ben Goertzel of SingularityNET.

Using humour as a mechanism, Sophia (who had recently been awarded citizenship of Saudi Arabia) stated that robots ‘don’t want to hurt you, we just want to take your jobs’.

Cyber Space

One of the most resounding talks was that of Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, who spoke on Cyber War, an issue that could come to affect huge numbers of people.

Smith’s presentation had captured the audience’s attention as he addressed how this new kind of warfare is a cheaper way of harming more people than physical weapons.

Calling for a Digital Geneva Convention

Calling for a Digital Geneva Convention, similar to that of the Geneva Convention, the Microsoft President spoke about how the safety of civilians and democracy must be prioritized in times of war.

Included in these protective laws need to be the resources that are essential for the survival of humans. “We need a digital Geneva convention so governments will not target civilians, hospitals or election processes or democratic institutions that are fundamental to our lives.”

This article first appeared in VTQ Magazine. 
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