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I, robot: AI, IoT and the greater good at Web Summit

29 Dec 2019Technology news
6 minute read

Each year, the great and the good (and everyone else) of the technology and innovation communities gather in Lisbon, Portugal for Web Summit. The Vodafone Innovation team were there - so for those that couldn’t make it – here’s the tl;dr.

Innovation and technology. Two words that go together – but that might bring to mind the startup ecosystem rather than big corporates.

At Vodafone we think a bit differently. I’m part of the innovation team based at Vodafone Group’s London headquarters.

We work with teams internally and externally, supporting innovation through incubator and accelerator programmes, partnerships with startups, technology companies and the wider innovation and tech communities.

This isn’t completely altruistic – to stay innovative and evolve, it’s vital we engage with and support the wider community.

So events like Web Summit are a great opportunity to keep up to date.

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Web Summit staff on Centre Stage during day three of Web Summit 2017 at Altice Arena in Lisbon. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Web Summit via Sportsfile

Planet power

It was interesting to see the big tech players link their work to sustainability, showing how tech is playing an increasing role in reducing emissions and cutting energy consumption.

Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and CEO of Verizon Consumer Group, was clear in his 5G keynote.

“Something that I believe is becoming more of a priority not just for Verizon, but for society as a whole – and that’s energy efficiency,” he said.

“5g energy consumption is expected to be only 10% of the usage we currently see on 4g. That’s a 10 times greater improvement. Advanced networks are already enabling us to do a lot in this area.“

“5g will matter, not only for business and consumers, but fundamentally the future of our planet.”

David Eun, president of Samsung NEXT and chief innovation officer at Samsung, also saw energy saving and sustainability as a key focus of the smart home.

“With the advancement of computer vision and machine learning, will be able to understand our surroundings and unique and exciting new ways,” he said.

“What if this was a home inspector that analyses each room’s environment, letting me know where your home is losing energy. This would help us save on energy costs and make our homes more eco-friendly.”

It’s trending

From the point of view of technology trends, a big focus was augmented and virtual reality platforms (AR and VR).

It’s still an unknown space we’re entering, but a lot of startups are focused on these types of solutions.

Eugene Chung is the CEO of Penrose Studios, the company behind the award winning VR film Arden’s Wake, which featured Jamie Foxx and Queen Latifah.

He talked about how the technology was changing the way we tell stories.

“We are on the verge of creating digital characters that react and interact in a way never before experienced,” he said.

“These characters could in fact be the most human way we have ever interacted with a computing platform, and could form the basis of the operating systems of the future.”

“We call these virtual beings, and they’re already here … they all have personalities, influence, and fans. They live cross platform from social media, to music, to video games and productivity.”

“And we’re only beginning to tap the potential humanity’s relationship with these virtual beings. And there’s a lot more that is going to be ahead.”

“By 2049, AI is projected to be advanced enough to generate a top 40 pop song, make a creative video, and even write a New York Times bestseller. Therefore, to appropriate Otto von Bismarck, the great questions of the day will be settled by data and space.”


Robot uprising

Artificial intelligence (AI) – and more specifically robotics – continues to evolve.

Probably the most fun moment of the whole conference was witnessing a discussion between two fairly famous robots.

Sophia, the humanoid robot by Hanson Robotics (and the first to have been granted citizenship of a country) “finally met” her great-grand-droid Philip K. Dick (named after the sci-fi writer who penned Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, better known to film buffs as Bladerunner).

Philip interestingly does not have control over his body, or any robotic function.

They talked to each other, and it was honestly quite enjoyable to witness.

The chief executive of Hanson Robotics, David Hanson, says he defines AI as “the dream and reality of living machines”, something depicted in myths and more recently science fiction.

“Dreams meet reason. But these are starting to come to life in our world. The robots are building our cars, they’re now our cars, our cars are driving robots, often partially automated, but increasingly so.”

“However in science fiction, the really profound thing is when those robots come to life, when they become aware, they become sentient and creative, they become self-determining beings.”

A range of AI technologies were on show, and discussion revolved around the need for us to adapt to these new technologies and get more comfortable with them.

Because AI is “infiltrating our home”, it will only get both weirder and more ubiquitous, as the lines between humanity and technology become more blurred.

Samsung’s David Eun summed this up in terms of the smart home.

Since devices will become smarter, and will no longer just have one job, it will take an “orchestration” of multiple devices to bake a cake or get a person through their daily routine.

“What if your living room could fully immerse you in the action? Putting you inside the stadium surrounded by other screaming fans?” he said.

“Wouldn’t this be amazing? In the future these experiences will be enabled through the fusion of hardware, software and services.”

“They will change not just the nature of the things in our homes like TVs and the walls themselves, but it will also change the use of the rooms of the home.”

“Perhaps the holodeck from Star Trek is not as far off as we think.”

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Speakers, from left: Ben Goertzel, Founder & CEO, SingularityNET, Philip K. Dick, Robot, Hanson Robotics with Sophia The Robot, Robot, Hanson Robotics, David Hanson, Founder, Hanson Robotics Ltd., on Centre Stage. Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Web Summit via Sportsfile

I think, therefore…

My favourite takeaway was Tony Blair’s talk on building a narrative of optimism around politics and technology’s role.

“The crisis of politics is that we’re not engaging with an analysis on how the world is changing (…). Populism is essentially driven by pessimism,” he said.

“So the challenge for politics – building from the centre – is to tackle questions that concern us (for example migration and technology) and to build a narrative of optimism around it.”

“That is what’s missing today. And we have to understand more and more: people don’t think politics can solve all their problems.

“In some cases, technology does it for them. So we need to change the way politics works – and make the benefits of change available to all citizens.”

Like politics, ultimately technology should be about improving the human condition for all of us – not just the lucky few.

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Tony Blair, Executive Chairman of the Institute for Global Change & Former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Photo by Cody Glenn/Web Summit via Sportsfile

  • AI
  • AR / VR
  • Connectivity
  • Technology

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