Web Summit 2021: Heard in the Halls
Join Cloudflare’s João Tomé for a series of conversations at Web Summit 2021, featuring an array of technology experts, entrepreneurs, government officials, and more.
Hosted in Lisbon, Portugal, the event drew 42,000 attendees from 128 countries — and it was an amazing opportunity to get a sense for what many of the world’s leaders are thinking about the Internet and beyond.
This episode features:
- David Shrier, American futurist and Professor of Practice, AI & Innovation with Imperial College Business School in London — on how the pandemic has affected people's relationship with technology, the digital divide, and more
- Vice Admiral Gouveia e Melo, Portuguese Navy officer and coordinator of the Task Force for the Portugal COVID-19 vaccination plan, on Vaccination, misinformation and leadership
- Siyabulela Mandela, Director for Africa Journalists for Human Rights — on why the Internet is a human right
- Carlos Moedas, Mayor of Lisbon; previous European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation — on the light (and innovation) in Lisbon
For more, don’t miss the blog post: Heard in the halls of Web Summit 2021
So, one of the things that we saw in the pandemic is that people really yearn to come together digitally in ways that they hadn't before.
So, for example, House Party came from nowhere and suddenly became this giant hit where everyone was connecting with each other over audio in a very sort of lightweight drop-in community fashion.
Another thing that happened is that people really revealed their dissatisfaction with the state-of-the-art of video connectivity platforms and they demanded better.
So, you saw a number of significant upgrades in platforms like Zoom and Teams as a consequence of people having to spend all day, every day, working through these connected networks and these video applications.
In terms of the way people started to connect more with the Internet, of course, they were obliged to do so because they had another possibility to work, to do things.
How do you see things play out after the pandemic?
Well, there's a couple of things that are running against each other as a consequence of the pandemic.
On the one hand, everyone is so tired of Zoom.
They're so fatigued from these video platforms that they're yearning to connect in person.
They really desire that face-to -face connectivity.
On the other hand, people have discovered the convenience of working from home.
People have discovered the ability to link together all over the world through these connected platforms.
And so, you've kind of got, on the one hand, people saying, you know, I can't do another video conference call.
I've got to go somewhere else.
And on the other hand, you have people saying, wow, this is really amazing.
I'm doing things. I'm working. I'm creating in ways that I'd never imagined possible.
And so, one of the major consequences of the pandemic is that the last of the digital resistors were forced to get online.
So, for things like digital finance, digital finance was sort of stalled.
It had reached a certain point, but digitization of money had kind of started to peter out prior to the pandemic.
The pandemic really forced a massive shift into digital technology. And now, people who had previously resisted using online payments or working through cross-border remittance or what have you in a digital format, now are suddenly saying, hey, you know what?
This is actually not so bad. And I save a lot of money doing it.
So, I think I'm just going to go digital. So, that has radically accelerated the digitization of a number of industries, including financial services.
Of course, there's a lot of talk also of Internet access. Those who have a good Internet access have access to all of this, all these new possibilities.
But those who don't are disadvantages.
What do you think about this? Yeah. So, the pandemic also laid bare the digital divide, right?
So, the UN has set a sustainable development goal to try and get people connected, SDG 9.
The global goals have said it's so important to the progress of humanity that people are able to get on the Internet, that we have to make it a global priority.
And the pandemic revealed how a lot of people in the world either don't have connectivity or they don't have good connectivity, and they've really struggled.
And so, we're starting to see a widening gap between rich and poor, which is just getting opened up significantly as a consequence of restrictions around COVID.
Of course, AI plays also a big role, of course.
It's evolving. And because the Internet has a bigger role, AI has a bigger role also.
Where do you see trends going in terms of AI?
So, artificial intelligence is both potentially our savior to address a lot of humanity's problems and also something that could throw 99% of humanity out of work, right?
I mean, there are extreme views of what the future could hold for AI.
What I'm working on at Imperial College with my colleagues is to develop a more humane view of how we can work with AI, where we bring people and computers together to do things that neither one could do as well by themselves.
It's a collaborative effort, really.
So, you sometimes hear it called cognitive AI. You sometimes hear it referred to as centaurs, you know, the half human, half horse.
But it's this idea of hybrid intelligence, where we can bring all of the creativity of humanity together with all of the analytic power and prognostication capability of artificial intelligence, and we can predict the future.
We can shape things that we didn't think were possible.
All those kinds of collective intelligence activities are enabled by this bringing together of human and AI.
About the future of the cloud, of the Internet, where do you see it going in terms of what you hope that will be better and what you think could be very bad?
One of the most exciting things that I've seen has been the trend of reducing launch lift costs for satellites.
So, SpaceX and other private space companies have really begun to revolutionize communications, including the Internet, with the new Starlink network coming up and having the potential to address some of these digital divide issues, where people who are in remote areas or in poor countries don't have high -speed Internet access.
Now they can. And that's going to change everything from finance to health to education to overall economic productivity to you name it.
So that sort of bonanza of connectivity that we're going to face as a consequence of new kinds of Internet and cloud-based systems becoming available thanks to the ability to get into space less expensively I find to be very exciting.
Other things that I get worried about are these quasi -private Internets.
Companies like Facebook are deeply concerning to me.
I guess they've rebranded themselves meta because in part the Facebook brand has gotten so tarnished because of how they've abused their access to personal data.
So I'm deeply concerned about when you have companies like that that don't have a check or balance against their scope, their overreach, what that means for their consumers, for society at large.
And so that's a trend that we are concerned about overall when we look at private Internet or the future of where connectivity is going to make sure that if cloud services are offered, for example, that they're offered in ways that average people all over the world can get access to them.
And that if we have data being stored in these cloud services, that it's got appropriate constraint around it so you don't have things happening like what Facebook has been doing with its user data.
There's a lot of talk about the metaverse besides Facebook.
Actually, it's a very old word. What do you think about the concept of metaverse and other companies also that are doing it?
Well, I find the world of augmented reality, virtual reality, I find that world very exciting.
I'm an investor in an augmented reality company. And I think the technology holds a lot of amazing potential, again, where we take people and we put them together with technology and then we reveal new things about the world around us.
And with virtual reality, we can take people and we can connect them up in more dynamic ways than even a flat videoconference call.
So one of the problems with videoconferencing is that you lose a lot of the social cues that you get when you meet with people in person.
And those social cues lead to trust, they lead to creativity, they lead to better collaboration.
So if we can put people into avatars and put them into a virtual environment, now we can start to replicate all the benefits of in-person, but add some other advantages.
So that's very exciting.
Of course, there was Second Life a few years ago. They're still going. This could be a second life for something like Second Life.
I think we can go far beyond Second Life.
So Second Life was fantastic on a number of levels. And it began to show the potential, but it was very niche.
What we need is widespread adoption.
And so that's where you get into these interesting questions around the ethics of technology, because the companies right now who are positioning themselves to be our on-ramp to the virtual universe, to the metaverse, are companies like Facebook, now Meta, Google, now Alphabet, Microsoft, highly centralized in a handful of businesses.
And so the question is, do we need more open source projects that can democratize this more?
Or do we need better regulation of big tech?
I don't believe it's going to happen, but some people think that big tech will be broken up because of this concentration of power.
But something needs to happen differently than what's happening today because of this centralization issue.
But do you think really that virtual reality, augmented reality will be more broad in terms of its acceptance?
Because for now, it is. Yeah, it's getting there.
It's going to take some time. I mean, let's look at artificial intelligence.
I was programming AI in 1991. We thought it was just around the corner.
It was probably not until about 2015 that we saw AI get powerful enough and useful enough that it went from a number of narrow applications to suddenly becoming something that's embedded in almost everything.
And so when you look at that technology adoption curve, it's a little hard to predict what's going to happen with these metaverse technologies.
But they're coming and they add such a significant benefit when they work correctly that they're going to get adopted.
We just have to get to the point where they're low cost enough and powerful enough to meet enough people's needs.
Throughout these years of your experience, what surprised you most on the evolution of the Internet, of technology?
I'd say the sharing economy no one saw coming. In 2000, no one had any concept of an Uber or an Airbnb or some of these other sort of fractional technologies.
Another thing that surprised me was how people really have embraced distributed ledger, blockchain.
It's now a two and a half trillion dollar U.S. asset class, these cryptocurrencies based on a database technology.
That's been surprising.
And what's interesting about it is we took databases, which we had for a while, and we took the Internet, which we had for a while, and we figured out a way to put them together in an interesting fashion that solved some fundamental problems around trust, transparency and collaboration.
So that was a big surprise to me.
In terms of what's coming of your work in London, where do you see trends going for what's coming?
Yeah, well, so a few things that I'm working on, one of them is I run an edtech company called Esme Learning, which uses cognitive AI to help people pivot into digital transformation faster.
So we're using AI to help you learn about AI and learn about fintech and learn about blockchain.
And we work with MIT and Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College.
So we work with the top universities of the world.
So that's very exciting. I also am involved in a nascent effort to try and figure out how to build trusted AI systems or ethical AI systems.
So we all know what AI should be doing, but all too often it does not do it.
And so is there a way that we can actually create software code that'll make sure the AI does what we want it to?
The last thing I'm working on is this problem of the institutionalization of digital assets.
So in other words, we have the blockchain, cryptocurrencies.
We have these new ways of dealing with money and with connecting different systems together and keeping track of what's going on.
And so it's moving from what had been a very kind of alternative or off the mainstream activity into something that some of the largest financial institutions and governments in the world are beginning to embrace.
And so educating people about the potential of this technology, its dangers, how to apply it correctly, that's something I spend a lot of time on.
How do you, in terms of your job in Portugal, how the Internet played a big role in terms of good and also bad?
In the good way, it was the way to spread good ideas, the way to make people come to the vaccination process in a fashion order, in a way that we organize things easier, than without Internet.
In the bad way, it was some kind of disinformation spread by social media that allowed this group of anti-vaccines to contaminate people with their crazy ideas.
But in Portugal, we had a big success in terms of people coming out.
So the Internet, the anti-vaxxers weren't that efficient, right?
Yes. In a way, we win the war, the psychological war against the anti-vax field.
But it was a problem in other countries and other places.
So Internet is good because it's an infrastructure, but also spreads a lot of lies and a lot of crazy ideas.
Of course, it's good for spreading, really. In terms of your job, how do you sum up, for someone who doesn't know what happened in Portugal, how do you sum up your job, your mission and how it played out?
My mission was not simple.
We have a goal to vaccinate everybody above 12 years old, which means more or less 88 percent of our population.
So we start slow and then we put a fast forward and we reach 86 percent.
So only two percent left on the anti-vaccines field or camp.
So I am very happy that we reached these numbers because with these numbers, we avoid the Delta variant.
In a way, the Delta variant is not so effective as before.
And we hope now that we can have our lives again and to do some things that we have not been done for more than one year.
As a person who dealt a lot in terms of offline world and now online world, where do you see the advantages of the Internet coming forward in the future, the way that can change society, organization, really?
As the bad information spreads in the Internet, also good information can spread and the good information camp is bigger.
So we have to spread this good information.
We have to change also ideas and the way things that we have done have been working so others can also copy and do it.
So it is positive that we can use this vast and global network for the good.
Do you have any idea, for example, we have a lot of engineers in our company.
Do you have any idea they should work on to make Internet better?
Internet is already very good. So the way to do it better is dangerous because if you start to have some kind of content verification, you also start to have some kind of autocratic over Internet, autocratic kind of process over the freedom of information.
This is dangerous. So my belief is that you have to have the freedom of information.
But the good camp have to explain better their ideas to win the obscurantism, to win crazy ideas from the 12th and 13th centuries.
And that made a difference in the real time world, in the world.
Yes, if we do right, that will change the world. We have to have good information, not bad information.
Perhaps a classify of the information for people saying that information is more or less bad or not regarding the truth of the facts perhaps helps.
But it's always dangerous. It's always dangerous when you start to classify information because in some way you can become and you can transform the information in a controlled information, which is dangerous for the people.
I will ask you a last advice for you have a lot of leadership training experience for someone who is leading a team.
What advice would you give them to lead better?
First, have very clear objectives, have values to pursue the objectives because you can pursue objectives in a bad way.
So have values because otherwise you will pursue the objectives in not a good way.
And have the stamina to do it every day until you finish your goals and to do effort.
You have to work a lot.
There is no there is no winning lottery. You have to work a lot.
Makes sense. Thank you so much for your time. I come from Journalists for Human Rights, which is a media development organization working in an intersection between media development and human rights advocacy.
So we work mostly in conflict zones and unstable governments around the African continent, advocating for human rights and training journalists on how to report on human rights issues.
And you would understand that when journalists reports on human rights issues, they inform societies about human rights violation within their communities, which therefore would enable the communities to mobilize themselves and advocate for human rights, for everyone to have access to human rights.
So that is the work that we do. At the moment, I had a project for Journalists for Human Rights, which focuses at mobilizing media to fight COVID -19, training journalists how to report on gender sensitive issues, human rights violations, on how to report on health related issues and human rights violations, particularly as it pertains to the rights of women and girls.
So I lead that project in East and Southern Africa.
We also have it in West Africa, in North Africa and the Middle East as well.
For me, this is part and parcel of continuing Nelson Mandela as an advocate for human rights, as a humanitarian, as an advocate for peace and security.
I also advocate for such issues. Internet is very critical because Internet can both be used for good and for bad.
And we've been seeing over the years Internet used to spread what we call fake news or to spread misinformation and disinformation as it related to issues around politics, to issues around health, to issues around human rights around the world.
For instance, at Journalists for Human Rights, we train journalists on how to spot and debunk misinformation and disinformation in the news, in the Internet.
So Internet, therefore, is a very critical platform.
When it is used correctly, it can bring about change, social change within communities.
Internet is a human right issue. Access to Internet is a human right issue.
We have seen, for instance, in Southern Africa and in countries such as Uganda, the government of Museveni during the election, they decided to shut down the Internet and the people of Uganda had no access to report on the injustices that were happening during the election.
So access to free and affordable Internet, I think it is a human right issue.
It is a democratic issue. It should be considered as a democratic right.
If we are to consolidate democracy, if we are to defend and fight for human rights, we then have to make sure that everyone has an access to affordable Internet, because that's the only way you can have access to information, for instance.
That is the only way you can be able to understand what is currently happening in Afghanistan.
We have to have access to Internet to understand what is happening in South Sudan, to understand what is happening in Uganda.
We have to have access to Internet in order to have access to information.
So it is of critical importance. I think if the world is to move forward, we must make Internet more accessible to communities that are unable.
Most impoverished communities within the African continent do not have access to Internet, so therefore their access to information is therefore limited in that regard.
At Journalists for Human Rights, we work with journalists in difficult zones such as South Sudan, such as Uganda, and we need to have journalists having access to some resources in a way.
We support journalists through grants, providing them resources in order to enable them to continue their journalistic work.
And they need to have access to Internet in order to access such grants that we give them.
So Internet, therefore, is the greatest key component of human connection.
It facilitates that connection. It enables the world to go around and to continue moving, and the human race to continue moving forward.
Without Internet, we wouldn't be able to have access to information.
I wouldn't even be able to be here at Web Summit.
It is a tech and innovation platform where Internet is of paramount importance.
Me and you, we are able to be connected and even having this conversation that is true, the abilities that Internet has been giving us.
So I think it is of paramount importance that we advocate for free and accessible Internet to everyone in different parts of the world.
I think there are so many things about Lisbon that attract so many people.
I've lived 15 years of my life outside of Portugal, so I can compare with other parts of the world.
And I think that Lisbon is this amazing city that has something very unique, first, which is light.
And light is important for ideas, is important for innovation, and is important for our state of spirit, our energy.
And that's something that is quite unique in a city like a capital city, but at the same time next to the sea with all that light.
Then you have the skills. I think that we have a very good engineering schools in Lisbon and in Portugal in general with very good people in the tech industry.
And that is the proof that you are here because I would imagine that if you didn't find the right engineers in the right place, you wouldn't be here and you are here because of that too.
And third, I think that today we have really as an ambition for the city to be this capital of innovation of the world.
And I think it's a big ambition, but it's an ambition that is needed for all these youth, all these Portuguese youth that wants to transform and wants to be part of the change for the future.
And I think that the more talent we get from outside, the better it is and also more for the people that are in Lisbon in terms of their possibilities to find jobs and to create companies.
So I'll fight for that. I have, as you know, I'm a mayor that was responsible for innovation at the European level.
And so I'm the person for that and I feel very passionate about it.
I have a great team around here with me from the municipality.
I think that the only thing I have to do is to inspire them to work and to have that dream and to transform that dream.
I think that we have all the pieces.
We just have to do it. And thank you for your company for being in Lisbon. I think it's important for all of us.
And I wish you a good and sustainable future here in Portugal.
Now, we need also to learn it with the U.S. how to transform all these ideas into companies and jobs, which is something that the U.S.
They have done it for a long time with fantastic technology. And Lisbon and Portugal have been cities, especially Lisbon, a city of science, but that science has to be transformed into innovation, which is quite tough, but with political willingness and leadership, we can do it.
And so that's what we do in Lisbon.
And we will do that to help people. Lisbon did an amazing job for a long time and now we go to the next level.
And I'm the one who will be here to get Lisbon to the next level.
And I think that for people like you and your company, that will be something that is important.
Then we have social programs for housing that also help a lot of these talent that are from Lisbon to be able to pay the rent, to be able to have a housing and proper housing, and also for the people in Lisbon in general that need that social welfare.
So we are basically a local social welfare state somehow, quote unquote, with really this ambition in innovation and science.
And so if you put that together, it's very strong.
Take care about the people and invest in the future.
And if you do both, you can do great things. We're betting on the technology for the future, not the technology for the past.
So having a broad network, having global companies, now running at full enterprise scale gives us great comfort.
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