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A view from The Vanity Fair Digital Summit

It was with intrigue and intellectual curiosity that I entered Shoreditch Town Hall. What would a line-up billed as ‘world’s most prominent innovators and influential leaders across the tech sector and digital world’ have in store for us?

The afternoon was structured around panel discussions covering a breadth of topics that reflected on the power of technology and the web to change our society. These would be punctuated by guest speakers ‘in conversation with’ their peers (informal yet illuminating interviews), and topped off with comic relief in the form of the Rick Edwards.

The Hopes of the Pioneers

Henry Porter, the editor of Vanity Fair, opened up the first session of the day by asking each of the esteemed panellists including Alan Rusbridger (former editor of the Guardian) and Martha Lane Fox (co-founder of lastminute.com) about their first experiences of the internet and whether the it could have developed in any other way that we know today.

The second session was all about enterprise, where a fierce debate ensued as to whether London’s Tech City can compete with the scale and success of US start-ups, specifically those in San Francisco. Given that London start-ups account for about 80% of the £560 million invested in technology in the UK, and Vizeum has its own Spark initiative, it felt like an especially pertinent discussion. It became clear that whilst there has been a shift in culture and mind set around innovation, more needs to be done still. The idea that entrepreneurship encourages the can-do attitude of ‘start up’ to ‘scale up’ with the wider availability of incubator programmes is mirrored by established corporates like O2’s (the headline sponsor) investment in start-ups to ensure that innovation keeps them at the forefront of competition.

The Good, the Bad and the Unimaginable

The panel discussion on Artificial Intelligence was one that I was particularly interested in after hearing the SXSW debrief from Vizeum’s own Innovation team. The speakers were academics from the fields of neuroscience, cognitive robotics and philosophy, as well as a transhumanist (advocates of using technology to achieve the abolition of human suffering, e.g. living longer) and chaired by the science broadcaster and write, Adam Rutherford.

My limited knowledge of AI was based on Hollywood interpretations and everyday technology like Siri and Google Translate – however the real frontier is human level AI, which is technology that can make decisions and adapt based on external influences, (and not based the way it is programmed at the start).

A demo of IBM’s Watson, the ‘jewel in their AI crown’, showed the applications of cognitive computing where the system comes up with solutions that may otherwise have not been considered – all based on its input database.

 

This was brought to life brilliantly with ChefWatson, which is a computer programme that helps cooks to discover and create original and completely unique recipes with the help of ‘flavour compound algorithms’.

In a partnership with Bon Appetit, a US recipe site, an app was created which users could download and come up with their own bank of recipes. It got me thinking about the implications for cognitive computing in other categories, for example healthcare, where the power of man and machine, rather than man vs. machine could benefit us for the better (e.g. for healthcare, reducing reliance on NHS Choices website).

Who are we on the web?

This session looked at the way our identities and sense of self change as we engage with the online world. It was a refreshing way to think about online audiences and think about explanations for people’s behaviour online. There was a defence of digital narcissism, as well as a reminder that the internet just mirrors different facets of real life human interactions – and therefore challenges around the web’s most contentious behaviours like bullying, privacy, and addiction should be responded to with an approach that is congruent across physical and digital environments.

The internet is a failed utopia

The final debate closed the afternoon on a high note – being chaired by the legend that is Jeremy Paxman, and two speakers each for and against the motion. On one side, the internet pessimists – Andrew Keen and Frank Pasqaule – highlighted how government surveillance of personal data with the cooperation of tech giants recording our every move online, has blighted the vision of ‘internet utopia’. On the other hand, Peter Barron and Beth Simone Noveck argued for the side of optimism, explaining that the past twenty years have opened up an unprecedented world of opportunity. It is not just as consumers of physical goods that have benefitted, but information flow and knowledge sharing across the world that has led to the paradigm shift in the way society interacts. Although Keen and Pasquale were very convincing, both of who have published exposés on the subject matter – it was ultimately an optimistic view in the house and unsurprisingly perhaps, given the media and tech backgrounds of attendees.

Kelly Fung is a planning manager at Vizeum