Web Summit 2017 kicked off last night in Lisbon with more than 59,000 attendees from 170 countries registering for the four-day event. They are here in Portugal to woo investors and partners, be inspired by 1,200 expert speakers, connect with 2,600 international media, share insights, and make and strengthen friendships.
Stephen Hawking sounds AI warning
Surprise guest Stephen Hawking, appearing at Web Summit via telepresence, talked up the potential of AI to transform society by eradicating poverty and disease, undoing damage done to the natural world, and more. But he also issued a dire warning: computers could exceed human intelligence and conceivably destroy us. “Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization.”
The charismatic physicist praised European legislators for their willingness to address these issues, and urged AI creators to “employ best practice and effective management” and “prepare for its consequences well in advance.” Ultimately optimistic, Professor Hawking said: “I believe that we can create AI for the good of the world—that it can work in harmony with us.”
Top speakers tackle big issues
Stephen Hawking’s inspiring works set the tone for the evening, with speakers urging Web Summit participants to think about how we can ensure that innovation is a force for good for all.
- Bryan Johnson, founder of Kernel, OS Fund and Braintree, also spoke about the future of humankind. He believes that we are entering the most important revolution of the human race: when we build the tools to rewrite our neural code and take control of our evolution. The world is getting better, but an accelerating pace of change and emergent complexity is putting stress on our society. “The single greatest thing we can do, as a species, is to work on our adaptability; to evolve with this change.”
- Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, who Web Summit co-founder Paddy Cosgrave introduced as “one of the most important people in the world today,” talked about why it’s important that tech giants act fairly in society. She cautioned that platforms underestimate the powers they hold, but should not be allowed to deny others the chance to challenge them. “Competition is one of the most important drivers of innovation,” she said.
- António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, identified climate change and growing inequality as key challenges for the world, and pointed to the fourth industrial revolution—AI, biotech, nanotech, and other innovations—as the answer to these challenges. “Science is on our side,” he said, but academia, business, government and civil society must work together to anticipate the consequences of innovation and adapt.
- Antonio Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal, reminded the capacity crowd at Altice Arena of the importance of coming together in person, with Lisbon’s Web Summit as the global epicentre of debate about global issues, from AI to climate change and inequality for the next three days.
Tomorrow’s Web Summit will delve even deeper into AI, human augmentation, global competition, and other issues. With a speaker line-up that including two robots debating whether AI will spell the end of humanity, we can look forward to some exciting predictions and a few heated discussions, too.