Websummit 2016 - three questions answered

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend the 2016 Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Portugal. For those who haven't heard of it, it's considered to be the World's largest conference in the tech and internet industry. With over 600 speakers and more than 50,000 attendees, it's fair to say that there was lots going on!

At upriseVSI, we offer a variety of web development services and create our own technology products, so it was great to see what all of the tech giants are working on at the moment and getting a look into the exciting future of the industry. The array of talks, presentations and exhibition stands gave me the opportunity to get answers to 3 interesting questions:

1) Are self-driving cars really going to happen, and soon?

2) Are robots going to take over the world with advances in Artificial Intelligence?

3) Is Virtual Reality really going to break the mass market?

For me, these three things have been mentioned many a time whenever talking about the immediate future, so it was great to get a valuable insight from experts. I've summarised some of the key messages from a number of talks concentrating on these subjects.

Self-driving cars 


A conversation that crops up daily in some form is that of cars which drive themselves. It’s an exciting concept but is it feasible and when do we hang our car keys up for good? Carlos Ghosn, CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance gave some interesting insight into the current state of the driverless car. 

Nissan are the biggest manufacturer of electric vehicles in the world, they make more electric cars than all other manufacturers put together. The Nissan Leaf is the highest-selling electric car in the world. With this accolade, the Renault-Nissan Alliance are also focusing on autonomous cars. 

Autonomous, self driving or driverless? 

There are essentially two terms to describe cars that will help us get to places without us doing the driving. First up is an autonomous vehicle that still has a driver. The vehicle is able to assist with tasks such as parking, changing lanes, collision avoidance etc, but there is still a mechanism for a person to drive the car themselves. The second, a driverless vehicle, is exactly as it sounds; one with no driver whatsoever. The vehicle does all the physical movement for us. A driverless vehicle is always self-driving, whereas an autonomous vehicle can, in theory, have the option to drive itself.

Renault-Nissan rate cars in relation to a 4 level system. Level 1 refers to the cars of today that are driven by people, whereas level 4 is fully driverless. At present, the company is focusing on stages 1, 2 and 3. So, for Nissan-Renault, a fully driverless car does not yet seem a feasible reality for the near future. But why not? 

Carlos went on to explain the 3 main challenges with making cars able to drive themselves: 

1 - Technology

In order for all vehicles to be able to be driverless across all travel systems and in all towns, cities, and in-betweens, the supporting technology needs to be absolutely everywhere. It also needs to be 100% flawless. Currently, it is neither and according to Carlos, it will not be in the immediate future.

2 - Regulation 

Many different companies across the globe are in the race to get a driverless car out into the mass market. As you might expect, much of the technology is protected and kept secret. Yet, we need consistency and regulation of process, research, funding, production, maintenance and advancements in the technology to realistically put people in vehicles with no driver on a daily basis across the world.

3 - Trust 

As a species, we're all creatures of habit and are instinctively adverse to risk. To many people, the idea of a car which users have no way to physically control is a terrifying concept. As such, consumers need to have 100% trust in the technology for it to be a mass market success. 


“Our children will not be driving in the future.”


However, the 3 blockers mentioned by Carlos were not seen as permanent. In the last talk of the conference from Hyperloop One co-founder Josh Giegel and investor Shervin Patel,  they spoke about the vision of a fully autonomous transport system. Sherwin stated that there will not be a necessity to drive in the future. He said "our children will not be driving in the future", something which is already beginning to emerge within modern society with the development of public transport and on-demand services such as Uber.

Hyperloop One comes from Tesla's Elon Musk's original aim to create a high-speed delivery network for cargo and people. The idea behind the system is to dramatically reduce travel time between major cities. At the time of writing this, the build is well underway and after successfully sending a scale model of the proposed metal sled from 0-112 mph in just 2 seconds, investors are poised to have the first Hyperloop carrying people between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. To put this into perspective, a journey that takes two hours by car will now take 12 minutes by Hyperloop.

The ultimate strategy for the Hyperloop system was revealed as a fully autonomous transport system, requiring no physical driving of any kind from people travelling between major cities throughout the world.

So it seems the passion, the vision and the effort for a world without driving are still very much alive. But for now, autonomy is the focus and making our vehicles smarter is probably the best way to get closer to the day our children will not be driving. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) 

AI isn't a new concept; we've been teaching machines to be more self-sufficient for decades. Programming a machine to follow a series of set rules, and to behave differently if there is a change in the system, is the basis of AI.

Many people don't realise, but everyday products with a low battery indicator or a printer that alerts you that it's low on ink, are some of the earliest forms of machine telling us something without prompting. And it is this that forms the basis of AI. A machine uses its own calculations and points of reference to conclude a fact.

So when are the robots going to take over? Well, without us at their side, they probably won’t. A talk from Facebook’s CTO, Mike Schroepfer, on their 10-year plan, from now to 2026, explained some of the limitations of true AI. Over the last 20 years, computational power has increased dramatically; machines now are 10 million times more powerful than they were in 1998. Facebook use that power on a daily basis to carry out automated tasks.

The example given was of the image recognition and captioning used by Facebook. Each day, a staggering 2 billion images are uploaded to Facebook. The system captions the image, describing what it can see but using more human terms. For example, “a woman walking a dog in the park” or “a man riding a motorbike on the beach”. The intelligent system recognises elements that make up the image, then the scene, and combines phrasing to make sense.

But when mistakes are made, we soon see the gap in AI, and true intelligence is questioned. The example Schroepfer showed next was a plane crashing into a bridge. The computer generated caption read “an aeroplane parked on the tarmac at the airport”. It had “seen” the plane, the tarmac of the bridge, the proximity of the two, and come to the nearest conclusion.


Intelligence allows us to retrieve a random fact stored in our memory.


He further went on to show a picture of a pizza. The system easily recognises the pizza, which was a rather tasty looking pizza with chopped sausage on top. But then Schroepfer asked the crowd if this pizza would be suitable for vegetarians. Of course, the sausage was enough of a clue for there to be instant murmurs of “no” from the crowd. This, he said, is not something the system would have known, and shows intelligence. No one in the audience needed to be a pizza expert to understand the question and the immediate response. Our intelligence allows us to retrieve in an instant a random fact we have stored in our memory at some point many years ago.

Another example Schroepfer gave was using a film synopsis on Wikipedia. A computer scans the content, then answers questions. For example, in the Matrix, what is the main source of energy? The computer takes separate parts of the information and formats it into an answer. Seems clever enough, but is it?

This is a system still in development, and the computer is trained by common problems most of us are used to at junior school. For example, “Bob has 3 daughters, Jane, Mary and Joanne. Joanne’s mother is called Susan. What is Susan’s husband called?” A problem like this requires relational thought processes, understanding how things are connected, but also requires another layer of knowledge; family terminology and that a mother is likely to be married to the father of her children, without it being explicitly stated.

Interestingly, each mistake the computer makes is stored and referenced when a similar question is asked. The more mistakes it makes, the more it learns.

So intelligence within a computed system is not a reality yet. But a system that learns from mistakes and adapts its behaviour accordingly? That is certainly here already. I don't know about you, but I believe that the line between a self-learning machine and an “intelligent” machine is getting increasingly smaller. 

Virtual Reality (VR) 

I’m not going to go into the technical specifics and differences of VR systems as that would be a full article in itself. VR was a major recurring theme at the conference, from speakers as well as companies with exhibition stands. But what are some of the most practical uses for VR?

Within the same talk, Schroepfer spoke about Virtual Reality and how it plays its part in the 10-year strategy for the company. Current VR systems are plugged into a computer which powers the headset and provides the visual feedback from movement in the virtual space. They usually also require a wired power source. 

Facebook have been developing a system that is all housed within the headset. At prototype stage, the system, codenamed Standalone, does not require a computer or external power supply, hence the name. Everything is within the headset. This is revolutionary and paves the way for making VR applications far more immersive and experiential by cutting the ties to a physical location.

Schroepfer didn't go into too much detail about the ultimate end use for the system, but the benefits of being able to move around freely whilst using this are quite clear. It will be interesting to see how it develops and what other manufacturers do in response.

A second product demo from the Facebook CTO was a touch controller developed for Oculus (a now Facebook-owned virtual reality hardware developer). A handheld device works with a headset to allow interaction with others in a virtual world. Coined as “social VR", this kind of system is a new way of using VR with others. Examples shown included playing virtual table tennis against a human opponent in real time, and virtual meetings with people shown as avatars that are fully controlled by the movements of the hardware. He also showed the layers of interaction possible through a video where an avatar controlled by a person picked up a virtual smartphone and made a real-world video call to his wife using the virtual smartphone. The avatar then took a real selfie within the virtual world, uploading it to a Facebook page in one click. I don't know about you, but I'd say that's pretty impressive.


Virtual Reality doesn't have to be isolating.


We all have the same image come to mind when someone mentions VR. A person standing with a headset on seemingly moving their head aimlessly and completely oblivious to anything or anyone in the near vicinity. But VR doesn’t have to be isolating.

Schroepfer showed the application 'Clouds Above Sitra' as a perfect example of using immersive VR to educate whilst involving others. A 12-year-old girl guides you through her temporary home, The Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. In the VR film, Sidra leads you through her daily life, including eating, sleeping, learning and playing in the vast desert city. Her world is yours to explore through VR technology.

Another talk by advertising giants, The McCann Group, demonstrated some of the work they have been doing with VR, neither of which are reliant on a headset or other device being worn. The one I want to mention is Field Trip to Mars, in which VR technology was built into a school bus. The bus is for all intents and purposes a normal school bus. It drives, it has seats, windows and doors. But what happens when a class full of children get on board and it begins its journey down the road? This is when it transcends the everyday school trip!

Initially, the inside of the bus goes pitch black. The windows are all opaque and no light comes through. Admittedly, it sounds a little terrifying at first! But by the time the children have rationally tried to understand what is happening, the windows appear again, yet now all they see is an unfamiliar landscape zooming passed them. It is the surface of the planet Mars. Wherever they look, they see views of Mars. The bus is still driving, and the landscape reacts as the bus changes course or speed. If the bus slows, the scenery movement slows. If the bus turns, the landscape spins around the windows.

It is a truly immersive virtual experience. It was the World’s first multi-person experience that did not require the wearing of any technology - and will certainly not be the last.

More to come

The Web Summit 2016 conference was immense. The size of the venue, the number of attendees, the calibre of speakers and organisations contributing were all extremely impressive. The answers to the three questions above have certainly helped get me head around the progress and current state of some of the leading technology advances that will impact our immediate future.

But more than anything, the conference has left me with a list of more and more exciting questions, leading into an ever-increasing urge to ask what, why, where and when. The three days have given me a huge amount of information from the talks I was able to see. I will be posting some more highlight articles over the next week or so, each with fascinating insight into the state of the internet and associated technologies. 

If you have any questions about the conference and subjects discussed, don't hesitate to get in touch

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