GenAI at Web Summit 2023

I attended Web Summit in Lisbon this year – an annual conference that hosts some of the biggest names in tech. Google. Meta. Amazon. Except not this year.

2023 was a strange year for Web Summit. Shortly before the event, Web Summit’s founder and longstanding CEO, Paddy Cosgrave, posted on X (formerly Twitter) that “war crimes are war crimes even when committed by allies” in reference to the ongoing bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli military.

In the wake of this, companies like Google, Amazon, and Meta announced they wouldn’t be present at Web Summit 2023. Paddy apologized for the statement and stepped down but this gesture didn’t appease the titans of tech.

With weeks until the opening ceremony, Web Summit had a new CEO and its headlining speakers had been drastically thinned. Meredith Whittaker (President of Signal), Chelsea Manning (activist and whistleblower), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia co-founder), and others were no longer big names in a catalog bursting with big names. They were the event’s main attraction.

Ordinarily, these speakers would be a foil to Google and Meta – criticizing the business models of the mainstream tech industry and providing an alternate vision of what tech could look like. But Google and Meta weren’t there.

These dissenting voices weren’t just the show’s stars – Katherine Maher, Web Summit’s new CEO, is the ex-CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation and sits on Signal’s board of directors.

The biggest subject of talk at Web Summit this year was generative AI and anything with “AI” in the title generated a huge crowd.

GenAI was the main focus of Web Summit’s opening night. Katherine Mayer welcomed “Portuguese AI founders” Christina Fonseca and Vasco Pedro to the stage, who painted a breathless vision of the technology.

Automation of jobs will allow humans to “level up; do a different thing”. We’ll all do our jobs with a GenAI “assistant” and gain “augmented cognition”. An entry-level worker using GenAI will be an “expert from day 1”. GenAI represents the “beginning of the next stage of human evolution”.

Christian and Vasco were followed by Jimmy Wales, who reminded us that ChatGPT is “pretty bad” and outputs “plausible-sounding nonsense”.

This didn’t kill the hype though. Panel discussions and fireside chats on entirely disconnected subjects included questions about GenAI and speakers with unrelated specializations speculated how GenAI might impact their field.

The broad consensus was:

  • This is a big deal. GenAI is a technological advancement comparable to electricity.
  • The correct approach to GenAI is “cautiously enthusiastic”. We shouldn’t resist the change but we shouldn’t shoehorn it into everything with disregard for efficacy or ramifications.
  • GenAI won’t replace humans but humans using GenAI will replace humans who don’t. The phrases “AI assistant” and “augmented cognition” cropped up constantly.

Then, in the afternoon of day 2, Meredith Whittaker took center-stage to give a talk titled “Is AI the real deal or all hype?”

The primary message of this talk was that GenAI relies inherently on completely centralized power. Training these machine learning tools requires huge bodies of data – such huge bodies of data that only companies like Amazon, Google or Meta are capable of collecting them.

This throws doubt on the idea that GenAI can ever be meaningfully open source. GenAI is only possible due to monopolies on data and AI startups are “barnacles on the ship”, reskinning an API rather than building anything revolutionary or new.

Meredith also raised other major issues with GenAI – that using it for emotional reading leads to racist outcomes, for example.

The call to action in her talk was that we need to readdress the 90s legislation that allows tech giants to collect data on this scale; that we need the breakup of concentrated tech power and the “disarmament” of the tech giants.

Chelsea Manning made four appearances on day 4, three of which were with Nym Technologies CEO, Harry Halpin. Chelsea also raised major concerns about GenAI with a focus on online privacy.

The biggest point Chelsea stressed was that once a piece of data had been used to train a GenAI tool, it’s effectively impossible to remove that piece of data because every piece of data changes how the tool weights every other piece of data.

Chelsea also reminded us that online privacy is important. It’s something that most of us have sacrificed so completely and for so long that’s it can be difficult to meaningfully remember what it looked like. She compared online privacy tools to the ability to lock your door or close your blinds.

In a panel on climate-focused journalism, Yasir Khan told us that climate is “no longer a niche”; that journalists should “present climate as something that permeates everything” by including information in every niche area of reporting on how climate change is impacting that niche.

It struck me that Web Summit did exactly that, but with GenAI. Almost every talk included discussion of GenAI and how it would inevitably impact each other niche represented at Web Summit.

In a panel on AI in Journalism, Ed Fraser (Channel 4 News) described a test in which a marketing team competed against GenAI in creating a piece of marketing material. He talked about how the AI-produced piece was polished but lacked substance and lacked the marketing team’s understanding of the industry.

I came into Web Summit skeptical of GenAI’s usefulness but this story came very close to selling me on it. As a writer with ADHD, ideation is easy but completion and polishing are relatively time-consuming. Hidden in this criticism of GenAI, there was an extremely personal argument for why GenAI could benefit me.

While the specifics of my experience being sold the tech were just that – specific to me – that’s the reason it was so compelling. In such a barrage of discussion of GenAI, the majority who attended Web Summit, including its skeptics, likely spent time reflecting on GenAI – what it could mean for their field and how they could make use of it personally

Regardless of the headlining speakers’ views on GenAI, Web Summit still worked to advertise the technology

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