Here’s what you missed at Web Summit Qatar 2024

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Matthew Taylor
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A large stage viewed over the heads of a crowded audience who are on their feet. On the stage, a long line of people face the audience. At the front of the stage, pyrotechnics go off. A large screen hanging at the back of the stage shows the Web Summit Qatar logo. This is Opening Night of Web Summit Qatar.

Did you miss out on Web Summit Qatar 2024? Here’s a roundup of just some of the highlights from our inaugural event in Doha.

Our first event in the Middle East saw more than 1,000 startups joining us from more than 81 countries around the world, and was the largest ever gathering of international startups in the region’s history.

Of these startups, 31 percent were women-founded, hailing from 56 countries including the US, Qatar, UAE, India and the UK. We were also proud that 37 percent of our attendees and 30 percent of our speakers were women.

Web Summit Qatar kicked off with an Opening Night speech from Web Summit CEO Katherine Maher, who said: “Someday, what I hope to hear is that the connections that people made in this room, out on the floor, over dinner or at Night Summit are ultimately going to lead to some of the greatest collaborations and innovation for humanity’s future.”

Here are some of the many sessions our attendees enjoyed:

Why spend US$7 trillion when US$70 billion will do?

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman is seeking US$7 trillion to overhaul the global semiconductor industry – an amount that would put Sam at the head of one of the planet’s top economies. 

The aim? To dominate the chip world. The problem? The CEO’s valuations are all wrong. At least that’s what it seems. “We could do it, probably, in US$700 billion, which is a bargain,” said Jonathan Ross, founder and CEO of Groq. 

Groq bills itself as the world’s first language processing unit (LPU), providing eye-catching speed performance for AI workloads running on the company’s LPU inference engine. “Our next-gen chip is 10-times more efficient than this generation, so maybe only US$70 billion,” said Jonathan.

“Originally, we didn’t know that generative AI was going to be that important. The term didn’t really exist,” said the former Google employee, bringing us back to the 2017 face-off between Google’s AlphaGo and world-champion Go player Lee Sedol.

From victory there, using chips Jonathan had built, GenAI was born. It lay relatively dormant until last year, when large language models burst onto the scene, giving concepts such as AlphaGo a boost of speed. And now, we’re in a world where GenAI-backed developments are arriving at breakneck speed.

Trevor Noah: Seeing is no longer believing in an AI world

A person (author and presenter Trevor Noah) sitting in an armchair. Trevor is wearing a headset mic and gesturing with his right hand. Behind Trevor, a screen reads 'Web Summit Qatar'. This is Opening Night of Web Summit Qatar.Presenter and author Trevor Noah. ImageHarry Murphy/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

As GenAI tools such as ChatGPT continue to gain popularity, author and presenter Trevor Noah urged caution about overestimating their capabilities. “As human beings, we’re oftentimes prone to viewing these technologies as being human, when in fact sometimes they are just giving us an output that matches our interpretation of what a human being would or wouldn’t do,” said Trevor.

The tech-savvy presenter has apparently spent time interrogating ChatGPT to understand its limitations. “I don’t see myself getting married to ChatGPT anytime soon,” joked Trevor. “I spend a lot of time asking ChatGPT about how it’s processing information, or how it’s thinking. And then it gives me an insight into it.”

While applauding technology’s ability to connect people across divides, the author warned of unintended consequences. “I think the biggest thing we always have to acknowledge is this: If you bridge the gap between people very quickly, it’s good for good. It’s also [good] for bad,” said Trevor.

The author and comedian warned that, as AI advances, AI-generated images, videos and text will lead to a situation where – between deep fakes and misinformation – no one knows what to believe.

“We’ve lived in a world where people have said ‘don’t believe it until you see it’, right? But now, when you see something with your own eyes, can you believe it?,” said Trevor.

Tech and the quest for justice

As technology constantly evolves, the potential for social and political change broadens. But, rather than take a cynical approach, humanity should look to the potential these advancements pose for activism.

So says award-winning human rights activist and Black Lives Matter co-founder Ayọ Tometi, who believes technology goes hand-in-hand with human rights advocacy.

“Communications technology has always been important for human rights advocates. No matter what time period we’re in, we’re always making use of the tech or the communications of our day,” said Ayọ.

Reflecting on the strategies of late political activists including Martin Luther King Jr, Bayard Rustin and Coretta Scott King, Ayọ highlighted the importance of the press in social movements: “They were always mobilizing and organizing themselves in a way that they could garner press in order to share their stories with a broader public. And they were so incredibly effective, because at the end of the day, we are human beings. People understand stories, and when they see what is happening, they’re moved by it.”

Though Ayọ touched on the potential dangers of technology – including public access to personal data and the spread of misinformation – she stressed the value it provides on a global scale.

“What we’re doing now is using our cell phones … and we’re able to document and share our stories, raise funds, and raise awareness for movements,” she added.

Space X rival aims for Mars

A standing person (Relativity Space co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis) wearing a headset mic and holding a presentation clicker. Behind Tim, a screen bears the message 'We design, build and launch reusable rockets'. This is Centre Stage on Day 3 of Web Summit Qatar.Relativity Space co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis on Centre Stage during Day 3 of Web Summit Qatar 2024. ImageRamsey Cardy/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

Relativity Space co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis has ambitions to develop an industrial base on Mars, but says that “going to the moon, going to Mars, space stations, commercial habitats, manufacturing in space… These are really growth trajectories that have a longer time horizon”.

Right now, the big money is in telecommunications infrastructure in space – or, more simply put, satellites. Companies including Amazon, Apple and SpaceX are investing billions to build their own satellite networks, which is creating a demand for launches that exceeds supply.

This is where Relativity Space comes into play. Having worked as a rocket propulsion engineer at Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Tim went on to hire 40 percent of Relativity’s employees from SpaceX – including the core team that developed Falcon 9 (the world’s first orbital class reusable rocket).

The space startup is developing a large reusable rocket called Terran R, which is 3D printed using rapid manufacturing techniques, is reusable, and, crucially, has a payload capacity about 40 percent larger than the Falcon 9.

“There are so many satellites that need to be launched that having 40 percent more payload for the same price greatly increases the competitiveness of other customers that want to build their own constellations and satellite networks,” explained Tim.

A long-term vision for a manufacturing base on Mars exists largely because the satellite market won’t slow down any time soon. Relativity Space has already signed US$2.2 billion in customer contracts to date, and is currently negotiating about US$7.5 billion dollars of additional contracts.

‘You can’t give it all to Microsoft’

What will follow Microsoft’s historic domination of enterprise solutions? More domination from Microsoft. That’s according to Alfred Chuang, co-founder and general partner at Race Capital.

Likening the current investment cycle to something akin to the web boom two decades ago, Alfred thinks the push towards AI – which has witnessed investment figures bounce back following the fallow 2022-2023 years – is showing a handful of clear focuses of attention. 

One is the clear attraction to “foundational technology”, as Alfred described it, highlighted by large language model companies spending significant sums on buying up opportunities in the space. Another is a focus on enterprise technology investment – “not consumer technology, because it is unknown how it will play out,” said the founder.

Within this, though, sits Microsoft: the dominant force of previous tech cycles, and the business best placed to run the show again.

“Given that, the world needs an alternative. You can’t give it all to Microsoft,” said Alfred. “So there is a lot of excitement around building out this enterprise infrastructure stack for GenAI in enterprise applications.”

This is what’s driving the congregation of companies in this field, said Alfred. Some are built for this space, others are pivoting in, while more and more are new companies, starting out there. “A lot of money is getting behind these companies.”

Is the idea of a singular African tech scene holding the continent back?

A person (Africa Communications Media Group co-founder and CEO Mimi Kalinda) sitting in an armchair. Mimi is wearing a headset mic and gesturing with her left hand. She appears to be speaking. Screens behind Mimi bear the Web Summit Qatar logo. This is Centre Stage on Day 3 of Web Summit Qatar.Africa Communications Media Group co-founder and group CEO Mimi Kalinda on Centre Stage during Day 3 of Web Summit Qatar 2024. ImageRamsey Cardy/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

Africa is an enormous, diverse, populous continent with myriad cultures, languages and ways of thinking. But in the west, particularly in the US, Africa is often spoken about in singular terms, as though it were one country. 

This may be holding back the continent-wide tech scene. 

“On the issue of narrative, when we talk about science, we don’t say African science, or US science, or Asian science,” said Johannesburg-based Mimi Kalinda, co-founder and group CEO at Africa Communications Media Group. 

“Why is it that African entrepreneurs and tech founders specifically are leading with the fact that we’re African? Is that relevant? I think that we just need to produce really great tech; innovate on the problems not just of Africa, but of the world,” said Mimi. 

Indeed, the focus on the concept of African tech is driving investment into just a few African markets – particularly Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa – despite booming economies right across the continent. 

Investment is increasingly coming from other markets in the global south, such as Southeast Asia and South America, but AZA Finance founder and CEO Elizabeth Rossiello thinks the real burst of growth will come when African founders succeed and re-invest locally.  

“The growth is in front of us. … We need to find the capital within, wait for our founders to get a little richer, and put the money back into the ecosystem,” Elizabeth said. “The next stage is for Africa to export its tech and export its excellence.”

We need to send politicians into space

A person (astronaut and entrepreneur Sara Sabry) sitting in an armchair. Sara is wearing a headset mic and gesturing with both hands. Sara appears to be speaking. Screens behind Sara bear the Web Summit Qatar logo. This is Centre Stage on Day 1 of Web Summit Qatar.Astronaut Sara Sabry speaking on stage at Web Summit Qatar 2024. ImageStephen McCarthy/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

Describing the groundbreaking journey to becoming the first Arab and African woman in space, astronaut Sara Sabry shared insights that extended beyond the technical achievements of space travel.

Sara believes that experiencing space firsthand can fundamentally alter one’s perspective, advocating for world leaders to embark on space missions to gain a unique and unifying view of our planet.

“I truly believe that we need to be sending more people – more leaders, more politicians, more people of influence – to go to space, because it gives you this other perspective of the world; that we’re really all the same,” said Sara.

“It’s an incredible experience,” Sara remarked, referring to the phenomenon of seeing Earth from space, known as the overview effect, which is what the astronaut was sent into space to study.

Sara’s advocacy for sending influential figures into space is grounded in the conviction that such experiences can lead to a greater sense of global unity and cooperation. 

“We’re really all the same,” observed the astronaut, highlighting how space travel can reveal the insignificance of political and cultural differences when we all look the same from the Blue Origin rocket.

Make sure not to miss out on Web Summit Rio. Get your ticket today.

Main image of pyrotechnics on Centre Stage on Opening Night of Web Summit Qatar: Stephen McCarthy/Web Summit (CC BY 2.0)

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