Highlights from Day 1 of Web Summit 2023

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A person(Signal president Meredith Whittaker) sits on a high stool. The person is gesturing with both hands and is wearing a headset mic. They appear to be speaking. The Web Summit logo appears behind them on wooden boxes. This is Q&A stage during Day 1 of Web Summit 2023 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal.

AI, centaur hunting and a challenge to do better on gender equality in tech. All this and more on Day 1 of Web Summit 2023.

It was a successful first day in Lisbon, with 70,236 attendees converging on the Altice Arena. Conversations were flowing both on and off the stage. And unsurprisingly, AI dominated. Here are just some of the highlights from the inaugural day of this year’s Web Summit.

Is AI being used as a cover to erode workers’ rights?

AI isn’t so much replacing workers as providing employers with “a pretext to degrade the working conditions of the workers who are managing these AI systems,” said Signal president and ethical AI researcher Meredith Whittaker.

Citing examples including Uber and the wider gig economy, the Signal president said that, while politicians and the general public were “distracted by the shiny promises of tech”, what was really happening was “the degradation of employment status across the globe”.

When it comes to fear of humans being replaced by technology, Meredith said, “We can’t talk about AI as an agency. AI isn’t doing this”.

“We need to be on the lookout for claims that AI is a magical technology that replaces workers, because that has not been borne out.”

AI could liberate us – or destroy us

Albert Wenger, managing partner of Union Square Ventures, laid out a positive vision for AI, arguing that it could liberate humanity from unnecessary labour rather than lead to job losses as we now understand them.

A person (Union Square Ventures managing partner Albert Wenger) sits in an armchair. The person is wearing a headset mic and is gesturing with both hands. They appear to be speaking. Behind them, the Web Summit logo is visible in several places. This is Centre Stage during Day 1 of Web Summit 2023 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal.
Albert Wenger, managing partner, Union Square Ventures. Image: Oliver Hardt/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

Albert’s comments may resonate with Star Trek fans, with a call for universal basic income: “We don’t want to have a world where you absolutely must work just to survive. If we are this technologically advanced, we should be creating a world where, if you want to take care of animals or restore nature, you can do it and still live”.

The renowned investor added that “this is the purpose of technological advancement”.

Albert was keen to stress that debates around AI shouldn’t be treated as “a soccer match” or “low-rung tribalism”, with particular comments for Marc Andreessen: “Marc has been on a bender to say ‘Build! Build! Build!’ … The idea that we can go full ‘permissionless innovation’ on even more powerful technology is, I think, faulty”.

Regulation will stifle AI innovation

If we want more upstream governance of AI and tech in general, then we should expect less innovation, claimed Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at MIT.

A person (MIT principal research scientist Andrew McAfee) walks across a stage. They are holding a presentation clicker in their left hand and wearing a headset mic. They appear to be speaking. The Web Summit logo is visible in several places behind them. This is Centre Stage during Day 1 of Web Summit 2023 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal.
Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist, MIT. Image: Eóin Noonan/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

Andrew cited the EU AI Act, the world’s first comprehensive AI law, noting “this act is pretty clear that more governance is needed, [but results in] more money spent, more lawyers hired, more engineers hired, and more time taken”.

“I look at this and I start to get a little bit less excited about this upstream approach … I’m on team ‘permissionless innovation’,” added the research scientist.

Andrew suggested that permissionless innovation – which, in reality, means less rather than complete freedom from regulation and oversight – has a basic philosophy: “Innovation is a fairly unpredictable, decentralised activity.”

Are centaurs the new unicorns?

Unicorns are rare, but are they becoming extinct? It’s a perennial question for the tech world. According to Jaidev Janardana, CEO at Zopa, “the bubble is over, and that probably is a good thing, because hopefully investors will be more discerning”.

Four people (from left, Fiat Ventures general partner Drew Glover; France Digitale managing director Maya Noël; Zopa CEO Jaidev Janardana; Xinhua News Agency business correspondent Martina Fuchs) sit in armchairs. They are all wearing headset mics and have their legs crossed. One of the people (Maya Noël) is gesturing with their right hand, and appears to be speaking. This is the MoneyConf stage during Day 1 of Web Summit 2023 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal.
From left, Fiat Ventures general partner Drew Glover, France Digitale managing director Maya Noël, Zopa CEO Jaidev Janardana and Xinhua News Agency business correspondent Martina Fuchs. Image: Tyler Miller/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

And while there may be fewer unicorns in the future, the focus now is on ‘centaurs’. These are startups that generate more than US$100 million in revenue annually, and have a clearly demonstrated path to profitability.

With less favourable economic conditions, the focus for investment is on unit economics and sales – not long runways and heavy cash-burning.

Fiat Ventures general partner Drew Glover does not believe there’s any difference between these mythical beasts, saying, “I believe if you are a centaur, you are a unicorn. If you do US$100 million in revenue, I, as an investor, am very happy to call you a unicorn”.

Drew believes these are just “momentum words”, and can be applied to any hotshot startup. And while buzz words will come and go, successful startups will continue to attract investment. For founders, though, their term sheets may be a little different.

When it comes to women in tech, ‘where are the men?’

“Where are the men?” asked Clara Chappaz, director at La French Tech – a public body responsible for supporting France’s tech ecosystem – in a challenge to the audience on a panel on women in tech.

It is noteworthy that discussions on equality issues are usually dominated by women, when the responsibility to foster greater gender equality is a shared one.

Women represent less than 30 percent of tech workers, less than 20 percent of management positions, and less than 10 percent of founders. Half of women tech workers quit the industry after they reach 35 years of age.

Without deliberate action, the situation is unlikely to improve. “The number of women VCs is worse, and you have close to no women general partners,” said Clara.

There are 14 million tech workers in the world: 11 million men and three million women. By underrepresenting half of the global population, who knows what ideas are being missed? “It’s a question of opportunities and performance,” said Clara.

There is still cause for optimism, though, with Clara adding, “what we’re seeing in France is a first generation of funds that are going after women-founded companies only”.

As these funds break new markets with women-founded startups, it is inevitable that other investors will follow suit. This cascade effect may finally bring tech the gender balance it needs.

Why do founders choose Portugal to kickstart their startups?

In the last 10 years, Portugal has experienced a “startups revolution”, according to António Dias Martins, CEO at Startup Portugal.

The country, as well as being home to Web Summit, is also home to more than 4,000 startups, with 100-plus startup incubators. Perhaps unusually, seven of the 15 largest companies in the country are tech companies.

“We believe that Lisbon can be one of the main centres of tech in Europe” said Gil Azevedo, executive director at Unicorn Factory Lisboa. This can be attributed to a world-class university system producing talented engineers, broad governmental and municipal support for tech, and a high-quality of life.

António also believes that Portugal being a relatively small country works to its advantage. With a smaller ecosystem, it is easier for people to connect, and everything is done on a “human scale” rather than on the terms of massive, faceless global companies.

But what’s next? António and Gil both believe that Portugal’s historical ties with Africa and Brazil make it the natural gateway to these growing and thriving markets.

There’s still lots more to come at Web Summit 2023. Catch further highlights by following #WebSummit across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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