On the opening night of Web Summit, one of the world’s largest technology conferences, the final speaker, although high profile, was not someone associated with the technology industry.
On the contrary.
In a surprise appearance at the annual event hosted in Lisbon, Portugal, Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska told an excited audience how Russian forces use advanced machinery and engineering to wage a brutal war.
“Your chosen profession, your field of expertise, is now a battlefield in Russia’s war against Ukraine,” Zelenska told the crowd of tens of thousands. “The dystopias we read about in science fiction novels and all the threats of life destruction are much closer than you think.”
And so Web Summit 2022 began, with a passionate appeal to the audience to consider the real impact of the technological advances being shaped by the more than 71,000 attendees.
This year’s top trends include a nod to the fact that ‘technology’ is ubiquitous and applies to all aspects of our lives, whether we like it or not. There was recognition that industry leaders have a responsibility to consider the future their inventions are creating, from artificial intelligence to robotics and cryptocurrency.
Geopolitics takes center stage
Web Summit founder and Irish entrepreneur Paddy Cosgrave told Global News during the conference that the decision to have the first lady of Ukraine as the keynote speaker was one that organizers did not take lightly.
“It is an unavoidable tragedy that is happening in Ukraine. The loss of life and its scale is unprecedented since the Second World War,” says Cosgrave. “As an event, we have to ask ourselves if there is something we can do, no matter how small.”
The logistical lift to make this happen was not small. It took months of top-secret planning to map out a security strategy that included heavily armed forces flanking Zelenska and securing all areas ahead of her arrival.
“There were guys with balaclavas and masks and all kinds of guns that I’ve never seen before,” says Cosgrave, describing what happened behind the scenes and in plain sight. “It was shocking because never in my life have I seen that level of security anywhere in Europe.”
In addition to the armed personnel on the ground, Cosgrave said there is a no-fly zone over the host venue, Altice Arena, with the exception of military drones patrolling overhead. Two fighter jets parked nearby were ready to take off in case of an emergency, he said.
Diversity in technology
Britta Muzyk-Tikovsky is an innovation and strategy consultant based in Munich, Germany. The founder of Capscovil, a technology innovation agency, has seen the evolution of Web Summit since she first attended in 2016, when Dublin was the host city. What stands out to her is the participation of women, who are usually underrepresented at tech conferences, she told Global News.
Forty-two percent of attendees this year, about 30,000, and about a third (34 percent) of Web Summit speakers were women. Organizers are offering discounted tickets to women, who can pay a fraction of the typical general admission ticket price of $680-$1,668 (500-850 euros).
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Muzyk-Tikovsky, who was also a speaker this year, says these types of initiatives have changed the demographics of the crowd.
“When I walked through the corridors, I saw mothers carrying their babies and prams and men also with small children. So parents took children, even teenagers, to this type of event because it also inspires them,” she says.
Although the gender disparity at Web Summit was more pronounced on stage than among attendees, Lotus Qi told Global News there was a “greater focus on diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) than other tech events it has attended. attended.
Qi is the head of operations at London-based deep tech startup Post Urban Ventures. “Ethical” technology projects stood out to her, including a Dutch biotech firm called Meatable, which produces lab-grown meat, mainly pork products.
“It’s basically no-kill meat, which I really like, because the ethics around eating meat is very much about the cruelty and the way we raise and slaughter animals, as well as the greenhouse gases and methane that come from growing animals,” she says.
The self-described “foodie” calls these types of advances aimed at industrial farming practices “awesome.”
Muzyk-Tikovsky says she’s encouraged by a trend of what she calls “tech for good” with founders focused on sustainability as well as DEI.
One of the most interesting applications she came across is a Hamburg-based medical technology company called Apoqlar whose software uses AI and immersive reality to help doctors navigate CT scans from all angles using 3-D images.
Another project she finds fascinating is a Ukrainian company called Releaf Paper that extracts cellulose fibers from fallen leaves to make sustainable packaging.
The dark side of technology
Muzyk-Tikovsky says she prefers the smaller, up-and-coming tech companies to the more established names, especially in the field of robotics. In 2019, Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics showcased its humanoid robot Sophia at Web Summit, which did not sit well with Muzyk-Tikovsky.
She points out that Sophia, modeled after the legendary actress Audrey Hepburn, was granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia, which she calls “a slap in the face” from a Kingdom that disregards human rights, especially women’s rights.
Even more sinister, according to Muzyk-Tikovsky, is the continued presence of Boston Dynamics, the American firm spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that designed robots designed to bypass humans.
She cites a 2018 video showing a four-legged Boston Dynamics robot trying to open a door while a human handler repeatedly stops it.
“This is the absolute wrong approach. We need robots as companions, and for tasks that are repetitive. What we don’t need is to teach robots how to be better than us and disobey,” she says.
Another major trend of an industry at a crossroads is the wider adoption of cryptocurrency, according to Qi. Despite the fallout from the failed deal by Binance – the world’s largest crypto exchange, whose founder Changpeng Zhao was also one of the opening night speakers – to save smaller rival FTX, she says the buzz around fintech is palpable.
Canada’s third-largest pension fund, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, is taking a hit on its US$95 million investment in troubled FTX, which filed for bankruptcy in the US on Friday. In August, Caisse depot et placement du Quebec was forced to write off its US$150 million investment in crypto-lending platform Celsius Network, which also went bankrupt.
“There is a crisis in crypto, but I personally think it will be good for it because it will mean more regulation to make it a more mature industry so that more institutional investors can come in,” says Qi.
Disclosure: Anne Gaviola moderated three panels at Web Summit, with the organizers covering her airfare.