AI was top of mind at Web Summit 2020 held last week as celebrity founders and funders took to the small screen to discuss digital twins, autonomous weapons and how to govern Mars.
Over 100,000 viewers tuned into the virtual conference, up 300% from the airing of its sister show Collision From Home held earlier this year, and up 30,000 attendees from 2019 when the event was last physically held in Portugal, according to the show’s producers. A production so flawless that unicorn maker, Garry Tan, predicted the platform would be worth a billion dollars if they ever chose to spin it out.
But what really made Web Summit a standout was its clever mix of programming. No other tech show has yet to cast Hollywood’s most famous meth dealers, Contagion’s patient zero, the Princess Bride and Captain America to discuss pivots from end times. Netflix and Amazon should take note – Web Summit was by far the best streaming entertainment of the week.
Great insights were shared on the promise and perils of AI by Mark Cuban, Deepak Chopra, Lars Buttler, The Daily Show’s Ronnie Chieng, Alexa’s boss David Limp, Grimes, Richie Hawtin (Plastikman), Ridley Scott, Palmer Luckey, Elad Gil, Garry Tan, Nicole Quinn, Gwyneth Paltrow, Serena Williams, Jen Rubio, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. Here are the highlights.
My Digital Twin
“I wish someone would invent an AI model of the human body that could be individualized,” Mark Cuban said. A mini me of sorts with a copy of all bodily functions where simulations could be run to tell you, “Your throat isn’t sore, you ate something that’s bothering your esophagus which can be cured by A, B, C or D in seven days.”
Deepak Chopra then introduced his own version of a mini me, Digital Deepak, a wellness guide for sleep, stress management, yoga, breathing, exercise, emotional resilience, nutrition, balancing circadian rhythms and self awareness. The best selling author only half-joked that he uploaded his consciousness to the AI Foundation to provide users with insights from his 91 books. Although its not clear how biometrics will be tracked on the app, AI Foundation cofounder and CEO Lars Buttler gave assurances that everyone will be able to train their own Personal AI soon and that safeguards were being taken to prevent deepfakes from being made on the platform.
But can your AI take a joke?
“AI can get a well known joke or play on words because it knows when it understands something. If its confidence interval is narrow and it doesn’t know what’s going on, it will say I don’t know this yet, let me learn more about this,” Buttler explained.
“Will AI ever be as funny as Ronnie Chieng?”
“AI funny as me?! I hope not, I’ll be out of a job,” Daily Show’s Ronnie Chieng said as he responded to audience questions, “Right now I can’t even get Alexa to set a timer without selling me an ad. If it’s going to be as funny as me, it probably will sell more ads, so maybe?”
He then mimicked how chatty Alexa has become.
“Hey Alexa, set a timer for 15 minutes.”
“Okay Ronnie, your timer is 15 minutes, by the way, would you like to buy a clock?”
“No, I don’t want to buy anything, I just want you to do your job!” he replied.
Alexa’s boss, Amazon’s Head of Hardware and Devices, Dave Limp explained they’re working on improving Alexa’s hunches.
“We’re at a point where one out of five interactions with Alexa are not instigated by the customer.” This means 20% of the time Alexa is doing something on your behalf, like playing news after you hit snooze to subtly wake you up.
“We’re trying to make this a delightful experience. What’s super important about being proactive is that you have to be right, a lot. As soon as you start getting proactive and incorrect, it gets annoying very quickly.”
TechnoUtopia v Dystopia
Alt pop superstar Grimes, girlfriend to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, and mother to the Elven spelling of AI, talked about the role technology is playing in her life.
“I feel like iPhone should turn off an hour before bed. It’s been giving me sleep problems. It’s technology we haven’t factored into our biology.” She added, “But we shouldn’t forget technology makes our lives better. We need more utopianism in sci fi.”
Having recently collaborated on an AI lullaby with Endel, the algorithmic mood music startup, Grimes observed, “Everyday I thank the overlords of Ableton for cleaning up my tracks, but I do worry though that AI will outpace us and make musicians obsolete. It’s inevitable. We have the beautiful advantage of knowing super intelligence is coming. We ought to make those rules now and not wait until its too late.”
“As AI becomes more powerful as this ghost in our data, in our personalities, and its own being, maybe it will become like Dune, where thinking machines get banned on Earth and we send AI out into the universe to spread the light of consciousness so information is wherever you go, and then Earth becomes this boutiquey thing like organic vegetables and when human music is heard, people will be like, oh, this was made by a woman, not a robot.”
As to whether this will turn into a dystopian nightmare of our own making, EDM pioneer Richie Hawtin added, “As Grimes said, we’re giving birth to AI. We can teach it and point it in the right direction, but where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.”
Grimes concluded, “Every tool has the potential to be dangerous. Where we are headed depends upon what we do with the technology. We’re on the knife’s edge right now but we have solved insane problems like our faces being beamed through space and time so we can be together in the same place right now despite physically being all over the world. That’s some crazy wizardry happening right here. There is a solution, we just shouldn’t make failure an option.”
Exiting The Anthropocene
Blade Runner director Ridley Scott delivered his own dire warning with the premiere of his Digital With A Purpose film urging innovators to find way to meet Paris Accord Climate 2030 goals. “The luxury of science fiction is that it’s fantasy. We’re dealing with reality. We’re being way too polite about where we are. We are at the threshold of an abyss of disaster.”
Which begs the question, if the age of autonomous weapons is upon us, who do you trust more with it, enemy nations or billionaire Oculus founder Palmer Luckey? That’s what Luckey asked in making the case for the tech giants to re-engage with the U.S. Department of Defense.
“AI is this very powerful and useful technology but its not very good at making life and death decisions and is totally capable of running autonomous weapon systems. We need to assume it develops as fast as the most optimistic people assume and set rules now,” Luckey said, “We shouldn’t be outsourcing accountability to a machine. You can’t lock up a machine in prison for war crimes.” Anduril AI analyzes data to help humans pull the trigger, with safeguards to prevent abuses, he said. He criticized Google and Apple for not doing more.
“Big Tech companies are not only not working on national security problems, but they’re killing the work of companies that are. This happened with Boston Dynamics. That’s because there are financial and PR incentives to stay out of military work. China has done an incredible job of blocking access to their markets as a tool to get the culture of Western democracies to subvert itself to China. Meanwhile, China is making huge strides in autonomy and AI. China is going to be a superpower, bigger than the United States.”
Why Silicon Valley Will Always Be Home To AI
In conversation with Bloomberg’s Katie Roof and unicorn investor Elad Gil, Initialized Capital’s Garry Tan shared his perspective on the Work From Anywhere diaspora.
“For those of you in the audience thinking about starting a company, I want to tell you the water is fine. San Francisco is still a great place to come to. I encourage you to meet us here. Markets are bigger than they’ve ever been. If you ask yourself where is all the tech market cap aggregating, of the 187 unicorns that have been created in the last 15 months, half were in the U.S. and a quarter in Silicon Valley. I do believe we’re going to continue to have a cluster in the Bay Area because of strong network effects that accelerate companies and people working in those industries. I don’t think that behavior goes away after Covid.”
It’s 2020, Computers Can Now See + Hear + Socialize
As to where he’s placing his AI bets for the new year, Tan said, “We remain very long on computer vision. We were the first investors in Cruise Automation which broke open the self-driving car space and now there is a lot of practical automation that was never possible before.”
An investor in Standard Cognition, he talked about its camera-only cashierless retail experience that enables you to walk into a store, pick up whatever you need and walkout. This is in stark contrast to Amazon Go which relies on shelf sensors and is considered prohibitively expensive to implement for the average storekeeper.
“Down the road we think practical robotics are just around the corner with sub $1,000 real time SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) computer vision, for use industrially and in the home.” Tan is also invested in Ava.me which applies on-the-fly machine learning to voice recognition and live captioning on Zoom.
Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Nicole Quinn is also bullish on AI. She sees online social experiences remaining sticky for the foreseeable future. She’s invested in Lunchclub, an AI concierge that serves up Zoom coffees for meaningful professional networking, and Cameo, an AI booking agent for celebrities that chat or send birthday greetings for a fee.
Quinn then took to the screen with her portfolio client, Gwyneth Paltrow, who shared news of Goop turning its first profit.
In March, “When the lockdowns happened and commerce seemed to completely stop, I set our marketing budgets to zero, pulled down our social media spend, and returned to our content roots to get back into the hearts and minds of our readers. Soon after engagement metrics went up and transactions followed, but our events and ads business had gone to zero overnight and our retail business was quite a bit down from plan. I knew I had to get to profitability as quickly as possible. The hardest part was having to take such a stringent look at the P&L, close stores and let go of people we loved,” Paltrow said.
But the biggest opportunity came when Paltrow, an Academy award winning actress, landed a Netflix series for the brand, Goop Lab, which just got renewed for Season 2. “We got a lot of new customers from the show. I feel like a lot of brands are very reliant on Facebook, but when you live in the intersection of content and commerce, founders need to think of ways to organically reach new customers. I’ll never buy another customer off Facebook again.”
“We tell our companies, to win it you got to stay in it,” Quinn said, applauding Paltrow’s quick and decisive actions, “You need to have at least 24 months runway at all times.”
Paltrow added, “I’m not that bullish on 2021. I think we’re still in for a lot of instability. We’re looking at creative ways to monetize content and find sustainable growth from within our own channels as opposed to spending money to prospect. We’re looking at doing something in food, which is a strong pillar for us, and not intensive from a capital expenditure standpoint.”
Tennis legend Serena Williams is a prolific AI investor. Her portfolio includes Tonal, Noom, Retail Zipline, Masterclass, Gobble, Billie and Daily Harvest, which she backed along with Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Quinn and Paris Hilton. Before the pandemic, she was an extensive traveler and launched the Away x Serena Williams luggage line. She went on screen with Away cofounder Jen Rubio to discuss their collaboration and the challenges the brand has been facing this year.
“Being at the intersection of travel and retail was pretty much the worst place to be. We stopped everything and took a hard look at should we be marketing at all. Approaching it very authentically and transparently with our customers allowed us to keep the brand going when it didn’t make any sense to travel,” Rubio said, sharing how fans have been supporting the brand by posting memes of Away suitcases posed as standing desks and workout benches. The company has since been able to pivot with travel goods for socially-distanced road trips, digital nomading and pandemic puppies.
Cheers to 2021!
Let’s all raise a glass to the end of 2020.
“It’s been a difficult year for the entire world but the one thing that’s gotten us through is knowing we’re all going through it together. I miss travel but I’m finding happy moments at home. It’s really cool to be in one place with my family,” said Williams.
Then Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul mixed up cocktails to promote their Dos Hombres Mezcal and did virtual shots from their sunny Los Feliz homes in locked down L.A. To next year in Lisbon!