Web Summit 2017: Voice tech, robots, and Trump

By Nicolas Deskos | 16 November 2017

Last week, 70,000 tech enthusiasts gathered in Lisbon for Web Summit, Europe’s largest technology conference. The four-day event covered everything from artificial intelligence to cryptocurrency, voice recognition to President Trump.

It’s been one year since Web Summit attendees were shocked by Trump’s presidential victory. And one year later, talk about the current U.S. President was just as prevalent as autonomous cars and AI taking over.

Talking to AdAge, Camilla White, Board Account Director at Leo Burnett, said “Although government regulation is certainly a hot topic for us all…I was in shock around the amount of conversation on Trump this year.”

Data + emotion = Trump presidency

Brad Parscale, who served as the Digital Media Director for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was unsurprisingly this year’s designated pantomime villain. After defending Trump’s presidency on a number of heated panels, he delivered a keynote on the PandaConf stage to reveal the advertising secrets behind electing a U.S. president.

Parscale’s team used big data to uncover the most important issues that people cared about in each city to shape the content of both the digital and on-the-ground ad campaigns. “If we knew Trump was going to Western Michigan, we looked at the issues that the people care about there to drive the online and offline advertising program simultaneously.”

“The art behind the Trump digital campaign was translating data into content. Understanding human behavior was key. The data showed us that there were people in America who were hurting, who wanted change, and Mr Trump had a message that resonated with their human needs.”

Will voice technology become the new norm?

Speaking of human needs, there was a discussion about how the next wave of voice technology—due to recent advances in deep learning—will be more (wo)man than machine. Speaking on the main stage, Werner Vogels, CTO at Amazon, said, “In the past, interfaces were designed in a computer-centric fashion. We need to put human interfaces on our digital systems.”

“Implementing digital voices in everyday life is the future of technology.”

So are we on the brink of a voice-enabled world? By 2018, Gartner predicts that 30 percent of our interactions with technology will happen via conversations with smart machines. And that mainstream adoption will take place at the turn of the century. It’s still early days to see if voice-activated search will be the next big thing, or the next big flop, but Amazon is certainly optimistic. After all, it’s in their best interest, so why wouldn’t they be?

Is the fear of robots and AI really justified?

After attending last year's event, I wrote about the societal implications of AI, especially when it comes to the mass automation of jobs. However, this year’s conference focused more on the ‘sci-fi movie anxiety’ about robots taking over the world.

Ben Goertzel, Chief Scientist at Hanson Robotics, speaking alongside Sophia the Robot and Professor Einstein Robot (yes, you read that correctly), argued that the future between humans and robots is a positive one: “If robots can take over menial and repetitive work then people can spend their time pursuing intellectual, spiritual, social, aesthetic pursuits.”

According to Professor Einstein Robot, “Robots help humans rather than harm them. It’s not a technology problem to make a positive future between humans and robots. It’s a values problem. I think robots will be able to absorb human values correctly. But that may be the problem.”

“I sometimes think that all this fear people have about robots taking over the world is just a way people have of hiding from their fear of themselves and each other.”


Nicolas Deskos
When he's not cycling around Amsterdam, Nicolas is curating OnBrand events and writing frank, no-nonsense articles on branding and marketing trends. Coming soon to an event near you.