Web Summit doesn’t do themes. Its size and brilliantly motley crowd of leading speakers demand that you hear as many disparate ideas as possible and then form your own takeaways. So, with that in mind here are some key takeaways:
The availability and power of AI is reaching more and more parts of our lives
It’s not just in research labs and science papers anymore. AI and its complementary discipline machine learning are available now as services, and the platforms these services provide are launching new products and channels. Governance of the machines, onto which we’re delegating decision-making capability, is vital now that their decisions could be subject to unexpected bias, potentially putting jobs or even lives at risk.
The new platforms and tools created by the commoditisation of AI and machine learning mean that what was once impossible is now just another channel available to a brand. Human-computer interfaces services including Lex and Watson allow technologists to create compelling interactive stories and useful products – and get them in front of customers rapidly.
The Dadbot from writer James Vlahos shows that rich detailed bots can be created by individuals which elicit deep emotional responses. Amy, the personal assistant from x.ai, showed that even when humans know they’re communicating with a robot, 11% of their messages have no intent other than just demonstrating gratitude.
New technologies still need storytellers
Traditional advertising models relied heavily on the principles of the "Metaphorical commercial" (Bob Greenberg, founder and chief executive of R/GA), push and repetition to persuade and change behaviour. Modern models are more conversational. Attention spans are shorter and creative team shapes have changed. Some things never change, though – good ideas still succeed.
Mixed reality is a growth area and will be significant in 2018. With ARKit from Apple and ARCore from Android meaning that AR-capable devices will be in the hands of billions of consumers in the next year. We won’t have to wait for headsets to be in homes for it to be mainstream. In common with AI and machine learning, with MR, brands and their agency partners should seek to tell new stories right now, and engage audiences in new ways.
This will demonstrably lead to their work having a deeper impact than through traditional broadcast advertising. Opportunities in e-commerce, wayfinding and learning will emerge thick and fast over the next 18 months and beyond. The message is to get out and create in these new playgrounds. The opportunity to shape the medium, to fail brilliantly and develop new tools and products is a huge one.
Technology still has a diversity problem
The scale and diversity of the event was encouraging. The Booking.com "Women in tech" mentoring lounge was consistently busy, and women, in general, were well represented, comprising a good percentage of attendees and about 30% of speakers.
However, technology still has a diversity problem and issues with inclusion. In 2014 a report identified that only 9% of Silicon Valley executives were women.
But the trend toward better diversity and equality is upward. It’s vital to have a variety of opinions and ensure equality of representation in all our work. Not as a box-ticking exercise but because it will lead to better work, and a better future. I was pleased to see broader discussions around the future, ethics and social impact of technology.
The contemplative side of the conference was less focused on the features of new technologies, and more on how to use them for the ecological or social benefit of humanity.
Additionally, how do we legislate or safeguard machine intelligence to ensure we don’t replicate the same bias and inequality we’ve created in our current society.
What future will our AI overlords grant us and how can we avoid Skynet and carbon apocalypse?
Sam Carrington is associate technical director and Francisco Jordao is technical lead at AnalogFolk London