Friday 18 October 2019

Web Summit's wild ideas for the future

From driverless cars to sex robots and the gender divide that continues to embarrass the technology industry, several clear trends emerged at Web Summit 2015. Here's are some of the best ideas the world's smartest companies are working on and the issues that will be dominating the news agenda for the next decade

Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger takes centre stage during the Web Summit
Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger takes centre stage during the Web Summit

Sarah McCabe

Virtual reality technology will be more common that the smartphone...

"It's almost certainly going to be mainstream at some point," said Palmer Lucker. Founder of hardware maker Oculus Rift, he is the creator of the world's most sophisticated virtual reality headset. Oculus was bought by Facebook last year for $2bn.

Right now, virtual reality technology is mainly used for video gaming. But "it's going to be more ubiquitous than the smartphone", predicted Lucker. "The idea that virtual reality is just for video gaming is a misconception".

It has uses in everything from education to medicine and dating, he said, and is the most obvious solution to a world in which resources are increasingly scare, allowing us to experience travelling to exotic new destinations without ever having to leave the couch.

The primary thing holding all of this back, according to Lucker, is our own computers. "In five to six years, most personal computers will be able to run good virtual reality programmes, but right now they are just not capable of it. But within my lifetime, we are going to have perfect virtual reality technology."

For parents, this may not be welcome. "You think your kids are immersed in digital now? Wait until they show up to the dinner table in helmets," said cybersecurity expert Mary Aiken.

The gender divide is dying, but it's not dead yet...

The technology industry's gender bias was as blatant as ever at this year's Web Summit - it felt like male attendees outnumbered females 100 to one. The vast majority of speakers were men too.

To their credit, its founders are trying to change this. On Wednesday, Paddy Cosgrave announced an initiative called 'commitment to change', whereby Web Summit will offer free tickets for its four 2016 conferences to 10,000 women, in an attempt to even out the gender divide.

The company is "acutely aware that female participation in the tech sector has been and continues to be a significant issue", he said, while admitting that many women would not have the time or money to fly to places like Lisbon and Hong Kong to attend even if their tickets are free.

The system works based on nominations - business people and entrepreneurs are asked to nominate "incredible female entrepreneurs" to receive an immediate free ticket, sent via email.

Even data is sexist, summiters heard. Women in developing countries are less likely to own phones and access technology, meaning data gathered in those countries is inherently biased towards men.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. "There's no doubt it is changing," said April Underwood, head of platform for the world's most talked about start-up, Slack - which is expanding to employ 120 people in Dublin.

"When I look around at our senior teams, they are split 50:50 male to female."

Robots will probably steal your job, and your boyfriend...

Around every corner at Web Summit was a robot. Tall, small, on wheels, on legs, every size and shape you can think of. The biggest star was Pepper, the creepily child-sized, snow white robot from Aldebaran Robotics, which has the ability to recognise and respond to human emotions.

Pepper is being used by companies in hundreds of ways, most interestingly on the high street. She or he (it wasn't quite clear) could soon replace flesh and blood salespeople in clothing stores, recommending styles suited to consumers' body shape and colouring using sophisticated algorithms.

Then there were the sex robots. One of the more curious debates at Web Summit centred on whether or not sex with robots is morally reprehensible.

One speaker, Dr Kathleen Richardson, called for an outright ban on it. Specifically, with the ones that look like humans. They're already being sold - like the Roxxxy robot, which looks like a blow-up doll.

Richardson, senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University, has just launched a campaign in the UK to get humanoid sex robots banned. "If people think they can have an intimate relationship with a machine then it says something about how we view relationships with real people" she said.

Jim Hunter, chief scientist for internet of things company Greenwave Systems, took a more scientific approach.

Sex with robots violates the first of the Three Laws of Robotics, as conceived by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, he said.

The First Law states that "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm" - the harm presumably being the emotional damage caused by coitus with a computer.

Drones will solve our farming problems...

Though the sight of something small and military-looking buzzing 20 feet overhead fills most normal people with dread, Web Summit speakers couldn't cheer drones loud enough. Their application to industrial problems was covered in depth, particularly in the context of farming.

Jono Millin of Drone Deploy led a particularly interesting talk, focusing on the benefits of using drones on farms. In some larger farms in Japan, drones are used to spread fertiliser.

"Drones are cheap labour in the sky," he said, highlighting the example of a potato farmer in South Dakota. Using drones, the farmer took heat sensitive photographs to identify planting issues.

Driverless cars will be here sooner than we think...

It's happening, said Ford chairman Bill Ford from Web Summit's Centre Stage, at a pace that is twice as fast as initially thought. "We used to think automatised driving was 25-30 years away. It's not. The level of disruption is coming at us much faster than we thought."

Driverless cars will probably reach consumers through some kind of partnership between automakers and tech giants like Google and Apple, he indicated. But right now both groups seems to be locked in a competitive race to get there first, rather than a partnership.

Google is testing driverless cars in the US and speculation has been rife that Apple could be producing a vehicle of its own. Traditional car-makers are racing to catch up; earlier this year, a consortium of Daimler, BMW and Audi bought Nokia's HERE mapping system which is seen as a key component for driverless cars.

Ford said the auto industry is at the threshold of a revolution. "We are now at the point where we are at the threshold of a series of revolutions in our industries... I think the new entrants will only make it better. And to me, it's really exciting and there are great partnership opportunities too," said Ford.

While the chairman of the auto giant declined to say whether Ford would collaborate with Apple and Google, he did say that partnerships will be important. "One company can't and probably shouldn't know it all and do it all."

We need to worry about technology lobbyists...

Not enough is being done to regulate the "revolving door" of officials moving from EU institutions into jobs where they lobby for technology companies, said European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly in a discussion with Irish Independent editor Fionnan Sheahan.

O'Reilly launched an investigation last year into the movement of EU officials working into industry roles where their inside knowledge is useful.

"Information is key to everything and if you have the inside information in relation to a particular regulation, a particular play that's happening in Europe that is going to have an impact on the bottom line of your company...then obviously you're going to try and get as much information as you can," she said.

The people with the most information were those working in the commission and the various directorates general.

"Obviously, if you are a big tech company and there's a particular regulation coming down the line which you want to influence, if you can recruit somebody freshly minted from the commission who's had this portfolio, well obviously that's quite a coup."

Huge hacks will only get worse...

The hacking of TalkTalk in the UK and spousal cheating site Ashley Madison in the US are just the tip of the iceberg, experts said, with one insisting the world is now facing "the cyber equivalent of 9/11".

"It's one company versus an infinite amount of expert knowledge and hackers. Security must be part of a company's core infrastructure - because we security firms alone aren't enough to stop all the threats that are out there," according to Rami Essaid, co-founder of bot-blocking service Distil Networks.

Rapidly developing technology and the proliferation of new apps is partly to blame, summiters heard. Developers are creating new opportunities for hackers to gain access every day - like an app that allowed cyclists to publicly track their journeys around cities. A savvy hacker realised that the kind of people who track their bike rides probably own expensive bikes. He followed the bike ride until the owner got home, went to the address and stole it.

"If we continue down the same path we're going down, giving out personal information to all kinds of entities, leaving thousands of thousands of copies out there, this is a problem," warned Todd Simpson, chief strategy officer for AVG Technologies.

Sport and technology are colliding...

A little late to the game, technology is transforming the world of sports. From player performance to fan interaction and stadium advertising, every aspect of sport is being torn apart and put back together again, smarter.

Cycling's Chris Froome was the biggest ticket of the many sports stars in attendance. Despite an abundance of cycling traditionalists who want to hold back the advance of technology, its rise is inexorable, Froome said, as shown by the way Team Sky uses technology to analyse his performance.

He also believes the televised broadcast of sport will change dramatically, incorporating real-time data into live sporting events.

At the other side of the conference, Ireland rugby star Jamie Heaslip was singing the praises of GPS tracking in rugby training. Michael Cheika - now head coach at World Cup runners-up Australia - introduced the tool to Leinster.

"We were one of the first northern hemisphere teams to embrace it in 2008," said Heaslip. "It has transformed the landscape. It completely changed how we trained. Like in business, you learn to tailor your training to actually being on the field - not in the office."

The sport/tech startups in attendance were particularly exciting. From the guys who want to tailor live TV advertising country by country, to Ireland's Orreco - which helps professional athletes diagnose problems by mining signals in their blood - there were some seriously cool ideas on show.

Apps will help us build every type of relationship...

The most anticipated speaker of the event was Sean Rad, founder of Tinder, the wildly popular dating app. Centre stage was packed for his talk. As of last December, 150,000 Irish people were using Tinder. Swiping right on a profile indicates interest, whereas swiping left indicates no interest. When two people 'swipe right' on each others profiles, the app allows them to communicate with each other.

Like Steve Jobs, Rad was ousted from the chief executive job at his company only to be reinstated by the board earlier this year. On stage, he was more reserved than expected, but still revealed some interesting insights into the ways today's daters meet that special someone.

Many millennials assume Tinder is used just for sexual encounters. But the company's internal research shows that over 80pc of users are there to find long-term relationships, Rad said. He views the app first and foremost as a social discovery platform. "Tinder is increasing the number of connections in the world."

That's why they're launching a new matching algorithm - they want to leave no stone unturned in the Tinder experience, aiming to help users get as many matches as possible.

There were apps and network to help build every type of relationship you could desire on show at the conference - from finding new friends in foreign cities to connecting wannabe dog walkers with tired dog owners.

Politics will be decided on Snapchat and Instagram...

Voter opinions are increasingly shaped by social media, summiters heard. At the vanguard of this is Cork native Samantha Barry (33), head of social media for CNN (and also an attendee at George and Amal Clooney's 'wedding of the decade').

Barry is even managing to tell political stories through networks not traditionally associated with hard news, like Instagram and Snapchat. She recruited Vanity Fair photographers to take 'motion photos' of US presidential candidates on Instagram, which sparked huge interest on the photo-sharing site. CNN's US Democratic Debate coverage "turned a two-hour debate into a two day trending conversation on social", she said.

"Instagram and Snapchat have never been places where political stories have been shared - but why not? Hundreds of thousands of people use those platforms every day. It's about tailoring your content to the platform, getting the message across whatever way you can."

News organisations and brands have to act now, Jonathan Hunt of US online media giant Vox said. "If you told people five years ago that half your traffic was going to come from mobile, people would have dunked you to see if you were a witch. But it's better to be proactive and get in front of it, rather than take a wait-and-see approach."

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