Quantum Computing, Flying Cars and Fake News: What Was Trending at This Year’s Web Summit?

Known as the “largest tech conference in the world” (or “Davos for geeks”), this year’s Web Summit in Lisbon hosted over 60,000 attendees, more than 1,200 of which were speakers, and a dizzying array of tech. Featuring hundreds of startups, investors and top tech CEOs, the event really has its finger on the pulse when it comes to the biggest and most impactful technology trends today. So, as a member of Ketchum’s technology practice and Web Summit attendee, I was more than curious about what the hottest trends were going to be this year…

The Brave New World of AI:
Everyone agrees that AI is the future, and will be applied to almost every industry to “augment” the work of humans. While we were collectively wowed when a surprisingly lifelike AI-enabled robot took to the stage, questions were raised across the floor about the ethics of AI. How can we ensure the right values are instilled, and that businesses use this transformational technology responsibly? Stephen Hawking weighed in via video link: “We stand on a threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting, if precarious, place to be, and you are the pioneers.”

Socializing VR:
A whole section of the floor was dedicated to VR gaming, and many brands were using flashy VR demos to pull in crowds. By hooking up VR headsets to a big screen, everyone could see what the user was experiencing in real-time. Much of the conversation centered around a single question: How can VR evolve to become more than an escape to another world, but a social experience too?

Blockchain Buzz:
While some questioned the longevity of blockchain’s hype, there was no doubt that it has the potential to revolutionize the world (and every industry within it) as we know it. Various creative use cases were discussed, from an AI collaboration platforms to a P2P network for energy exchange. As one delegate I overheard put it, “Blockchain is unstoppable!”

Quantum Computing – the Next Frontier:
Seen as the next frontier in computing, many of the big tech companies have claimed to be on the edge of a quantum computing breakthrough resulting in faster, more powerful processing. It seems we’re edging closer to this quantum reality, with the announcement of a big tech/auto partnership using quantum computing to improve electric car battery efficiency. Its applications in the energy space were a hot topic elsewhere on the floor too, and with the world focusing more and more on sustainable energy solutions, this area will be one to watch.

Flying Cars:
While the large auto companies showed up in a big way, it was a certain ride-hailing tech company that made the biggest impact, announcing plans to launch fully electric aircraft ride-sharing in 2020. Great news for Back to the Future fans!

Serious Matchmaking for Startups and VCs:
With over 2,000 startups and 1,400 tech investors in attendance, the event now represents the largest accumulation of VC funding in one place at the same time in the world. This was a huge part of the show, with 200 startups battling it out live on stage in the “PITCH” competition.

While tech continues to be the engine driving the show, Web Summit welcomes a huge range of brands, some of which you might not expect. Beyond major tech trends, brands and influencers are now coming to Web Summit to discuss society’s biggest concerns, and the role the tech industry can play in solving them.

Tech for Good:
Sustainability was a big topic of discussion at this year’s show, with world-leading influencers, policymakers and brands coming together in the “Future Societies” track, covering topics like the future of food, decarbonization and energy efficiency.

Tech Checks Its Bias:
Mentoring sessions take place all day, every day, at Web Summit – with an impressive ‘Women in Tech Lounge’ dedicated to fostering such conversations, and a number of panel sessions focused on what actions we can take to improve diversity and inclusion – from unconscious bias training to anonymous reporting. Some of the best mentor advice I heard? “Look yourself in the mirror and say today, ‘I’m going to kick ass!”

Fake News:
Passionate debates raged on throughout the Summit as to whether fake news was an amusing insult or had the potential to destabilize democracy itself. Will we have to become our own editors, and discern what is real or fake? Or is the onus on tech companies and regulators to intervene? Technology’s impact on the future of the media was top of mind for many attendees.

The Future of Work:
As technology advances, how will the job market change? For the most part, the industry has a positive outlook, with the belief that AI and automation will enable us to do much more interesting and more human work.

Perhaps the most striking takeaway was how the industry is walking the line between creating the next breakthrough in technological innovation vs. finding its footing as an enabler – or disruptor – on a broader societal level. As technology marches forward, the question on many people’s lips was less, “Can we?” and more, “Should we?” Those are the burning questions that attendees will be trying to solve for in the months ahead.

Do you have questions about the Summit and how your brand can capitalize on the trends mentioned above? Reach out to Lisa Sullivan, head of our North America Technology practice or me here!