AI the focus on first full day of Web Summit

Conference looks to move past Paddy Cosgrave controversy

Web Summit opened its doors in Lisbon for the first full day of the tech conference as it tries to leave the controversy generated by its former chief executive behind.

Day one of the conference, which runs until Thursday, saw tech leaders such as Alibaba’s president Kuo Zhang and Signal’s Meredith Whittaker take to the main stage.

But the absences at the event, the result of cofounder Paddy Cosgrave’s comments on social media about Israel’s military action in Gaza, were obvious.

More than 70,000 people are registered to attend Web Summit, with more than 900 investors and 2,600 start-ups taking part, but the event lost a number of partners that were due to exhibit on the show floor. Google and Amazon Web Services were two withdrawals, before Mr Cosgrave’s resignation, with Intel and Siemens also announcing they would not take part. The event also lost several speakers, some of whom were scheduled for the main stage.


Web Summit was keen to emphasise the positives though, pointing to the number of women attending – 43 per cent compared to last year’s 42 per cent, and 38 per cent of this year’s speaker’s are women. More than one-third of the start-ups are founded by women.

And few of the attendees who spoke to The Irish Times said they had reconsidered their participation in the event.

New chief executive Katherine Maher had drawn a line under the controversy the previous evening, saying the event should be the place for tough conversations, not the subject of them, and reaffirming her support for free expression.

In her opening remarks on Tuesday on the main stage, she stuck to an upbeat tone, telling the audience they would see that Web Summit is where “the future comes to be born”.

“I would like you all to take a moment to think about the world around us, and the role of information in it, and what it means in this charged time,” she said. “I want you to consider the role that we all have to play in the development of technology and how we use that to make the world a safer and better place.”

That was a precursor to a talk on the future regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) by MIT’s Andrew McAfee, a “contested” conversation Ms Maher said, as she raised a number of concerns that have led to a push towards imposing guard rails for the technology.

“How do we both have AI and enjoy democracy? How do we have AI and enjoy freedom of expression, as I talked about last night?” Ms Maher said.

How Paddy Cosgrave lost his grip on Web Summit

Listen | 20:21

The topic of AI featured heavily on the first day of the event. Outreach CEO Manny Medina took to the main stage to talk about how AI could level the playing field for work, making things more equal for workers. However, he said that a lot of technology was “stealing time” from people.

“At its core technology is supposed to buy us time, it’s supposed to get us time back so we can spend time doing human things, like connecting and being with each other,” he said. “But does it really do that?”

AI wearables as the future of multilingual communication, how the technology is driving entrepreneurship, and a discussion on the real value of AI versus the hype were also featured on the main stage.

A steady stream of footballers spoke on Tuesday, discussing various products and their own projects, including ex-Manchester United player Patrice Evra and ex-Chelsea manager André Villas-Boas.

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien is an Irish Times business and technology journalist