Web Summit moves on from Dublin roots as it matures in Lisbon

AI is hottest topic at fully-fledged international conference with 60,000 attendees

British  theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking:  he said artificial intelligence could be “be the best or worst thing to ever happen to humanity” during his keynote speech at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. Photograph: Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

British theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking: he said artificial intelligence could be “be the best or worst thing to ever happen to humanity” during his keynote speech at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. Photograph: Patricia De Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

 

For anyone hoping the organisers of the Web Summit might fail dismally in Lisbon and end up back in Dublin with their tails between their legs, think again.

The Web Summit is bigger than ever and the talk from attendees there this week was how well everything worked. Now in its second year in the Portuguese capital, the event has bedded down and has become what its organisers always really wanted it to be: an international conference.

In doing so, the Web Summit has certainly given up trying to retain an Irish identity. There may still be plenty of attendees and speakers from back home, and many of the crew involved in putting on the event are also from Ireland, but it has moved on.

Perhaps in relocating, the Web Summit has also become a little bit more serious than in previous years. That is not to say there wasn’t plenty of craic to be had, but there is also a recognition that the times we’ve living in aren’t as much fun as they used to be and technology may be partly to blame for this.

Opening night set the tone with co-founder and chief executive Paddy Cosgravely noting how tech “was turning everything upside down”.

“On the one hand, it is very exciting. Technology’s impact is only just beginning, but on the other hand there are things happening in the world which, because of technology, are deeply concerning,” said Cosgrave.

Overall, the Web Summit is a shiny, happy place

Keynote speaker Stephen Hawking was also somewhat downbeat, even while insisting he was an optimist. Discussing the rise of artificial intelligence, the scientist warned that it might “be the best or worst thing to ever happen to humanity” and spoke of the need to prepare for potential risks associated with AI.

“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,” said Hawking.

No pressure so. Or at least if there was, most of the attendees were not showing it. Overall, the Web Summit is a shiny, happy place and, while concerns over where tech might be leading us were being expressed, they were largely outweighed by one dreamer or another trying to sell you their latest “life-changing” solution.

If technology is having a teenage identity crisis, as Politico suggested in its write-up of the Web Summit earlier this week, then most of the tantrums are taking place off the stage.

Serious networking

As Paddy Cosgrave also noted in his opening night comments, “networking lies at the heart of the Web Summit. That is what it is all about.”

This is no place for the shy. There were almost 60,000 people at the summit this year, a figure that balloons to more than 80,000 once contractors, media representatives, caterers and others are taken into consideration.

The idea may not be to get to know each and every one of them before the end of the week but some individuals looked as though they might just get there.

The discussions, as ever, were far and wide ranging. With 25 conferences in one, there’s something for everybody. As with Glastonbury or the Electric Picnic, however, there’s always a concern that something better is happening at another stage than the one you’re at.

The Irish at the Web Summit were largely happy to be there with most if not all giving it the thumbs up.

They’ve done a really good job of separating things out so that it is relatively easy to meet investors  

“The Web Summit has been amazing. The venue is purpose-built for something like this. It is all nicely compartmentalised and of course, because it is Portugal, the food is really good,” says Charles Dowd, co-founder and chief executive of fintech start-up Plynk.

“They’ve done a really good job of separating things out so that it is relatively easy to meet investors and people we want to work with,” he adds.

Long-time attendees such as Johnny Walker, founder and chief executive of healthtech start-up Jinga Life and an EY Ireland Entrepreneur of the Year finalist while at the helm of Global Diagnostics, remains a big fan.

“I see the Web Summit as the ‘must go’ event in the calendar each year. It’s where we get to hear directly from the stand-out, breakthrough innovators across multiple domains as well as get a peak around the corner into the near future at what is coming at us,” he says.

Drumming up interest

For the little guys in particular, the conference is seen as a way for them to punch above their weight.

“We’re a four-man start-up here to drum up interest from investors and customers and this is the world’s premier tech summit so there’s no better place for us to be right now, especially at the stage we’re at,” says Chris Jackson of Easynote, an app-based project management tool.

“There really is no better place where little guys like us can rub shoulders with the big boys,” he adds.

It’s not just minnows though. Representatives from IDA Ireland were also out on the floors doing their best to sell the State.

“This presents an opportunity for our team to meet target companies and their senior leadership. Ireland is now the leading location for mobile, early-stage companies that are scaling their businesses and this is an important message for us to share in Lisbon,” says Barry O’Dowd, head of emerging business and new forms of investment at IDA Ireland.

We’re no longer at a point where we are just imagining what might emerge in the future, but are now actively living in that future

If there was one topic that dominated discussions this year it was AI. From Hanson Robotics’ android Sophia, the first robot to be granted citizenship of a country, to Waymo’s self-driving cars, the issue was on everyone’s lips.

The announcement from Waymo chief executive John Krafolk in Lisbon on Tuesday that the Google subsidiary had started test driving self-driving cars without anyone in the driver seat on public roads, was one of the biggest stories this week.

It signalled that we’re no longer at a point where we are just imagining what might emerge in the future, but are now actively living in that future.

We may not know our final destination but it looks as though a stop-off in Lisbon again next year may help us get there that little bit quicker.

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