Over 15 000 people attended the Webit festival this year, hosted in Sofia, Bulgaria. In its 11th run, the globally renowned international tech festival gathered start-ups, investors and industry leaders to discuss the latest tech and digital trends.
For its founder and chair, Dr. Plamen Rousev, Webit is an opportunity to change misperceptions about the tech ecosystem of Central and Eastern Europe and promote education of digital skills of future generations and the youth, including 6-year-old Lachezar Tomov, the youngest gold medallist of the International Mathematical Olympiad who Rousev invited on stage.
Leading in regulation, lagging in innovation
According to keynote speaker Mariya Gabriel, EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Sofia is becoming an important hub for start-ups and innovation, benefiting from the EU’s strategy of supporting start-up ecosystems. For example, the Digital Single Market has successfully removed unnecessary barriers, like roaming charges and enabled the free flow of data, protected consumers though privacy and cybersecurity legislation, and established a human-centric approach to artificial intelligence (AI). However, she also noted that Europe’s position as a leader in tech needs strong funding, and presented the European Commission’s $9.2 billion Digital Europe Programme dedicated to boosting Europe’s strategic digital capacities and deployment of technologies in key areas, like high-performance computing, AI, and cybersecurity. For her, achieving this requires investing in ecosystems, talent, platforms and creating harmonised policies.
Where Europe leads in regulation, it lags behind in innovation. There is not a single European company in the top 20 global tech companies, nor are any of the R&D leaders Europe-based. For Thomas Arnoldner, CEO of A1 Group, a leading mobile operator in Central and Eastern Europe, European regulation for online giants hinders growth. To compete with the US and China, Europe needs to focus on creating investment-friendly environments and liberalise regulation, such as tax incentives and regulatory “sandboxes”. Companies need room to develop and implement new technologies before commercialising them. The balance between regulation and innovation is a challenge for any digital economy and regulators struggle to understand the complexities of the technology as they develop regulation that works on a global basis, not just in Europe.
Privacy vs security
The event continued with a discussion on privacy, security and trust, moderated by Access Partnership’s Head of Data Policy and Trust Laura Sallstrom. The panel included Aidan Ryan, Head of Policy of ENISA, Alonso Bustamante from Cloudfare, Cosimo Distance from the Institute of Applied Sciences and Intelligent Systems (ISASI) and Travis LeBlanc, Partner at Cooley LLP. All agreed that privacy is at the cornerstone of technology use for individuals and businesses, as well as of any discussion on data and security. As public awareness increases and scandals unfold, guaranteeing privacy has become a competitive advantage for businesses. Apple’s recent advert on privacy is the latest example of a company differentiating itself to the public from other tech giants.
But there are trade-offs between maintaining privacy and enhancing innovation. For example, the ISASI’s AI-powered facial recognition tool needs to be intelligent enough system to be able to detect malicious activities. But, using mass amounts of data implies the risks of infringing on user privacy or potentially breaching GDPR rules. The panel concluded that efforts to ensure privacy are improving but security is still an issue and open dialogues between data protection authorities and industry are critical to prevent malicious behaviour.
Classic skills for future jobs
The two day event saw a lot of demos on the latest in tech, including cyber-shoes using virtual reality, advanced AI-powered companion robots, wireless power networks that enable battery-powered drones to recharge while still in flight, autonomous satellite connected cargo drones, and hoverbikes that can traverse any terrain. While these innovations may generate fears of “machines replacing humans”, automation will augment human capabilities as workers leverage new technologies. For example, nine-to-five jobs will fade in favour of part-time, freelance, or job-share positions assisted by AI, and digital platforms will continue to facilitate communication by removing the barrier of physical distance. As a result, learning and transferring skills will be essential for the future of work and while technological innovation will continue, the human factor will not become obsolete anytime soon.
Author: Ivan Ivanov, Marketing Manager, Access Partnership