The Next Web 2018: Needle Highlights


    Last week the Needle Team had the pleasure of attending The Next Web 2018, a 2-day technology festival held in Amsterdam. The event consisted of a wide variety of activities, including keynotes, ‘fireside chats’, start-up exhibitions, and pitching sessions. Below are some of the highlights from the event.

    Che-Wei Wang – The future of design

    Unexpectedly, my favorite presentation of the event would be from Che-Wei Wang, an artist, and designer who spoke about the intersection of generative design, neural networks, and natural language processing. Throughout an engaging 20-minute talk, Che-Wei outlined the ways in which creative roles (such as designers) will be transformed by these three technologies.

    Using examples such as chairs and bike stems Che-Wei illustrated how it is now possible to simply provide the functional requirements (e.g. the weight a chair can support), and through machine learning teach a model what you think is a beautiful chair. The outcome? Generative design that is now based upon your own stated preferences. These types of technologies will fundamentally change the design field. In the words of Che-Wei:

    “Machines are going to design things we can’t even imagine. So our role, as designers, has to change. Designers will become conductors, rather than composers. Directors, rather than actors. And air traffic control, rather than pilots.”

    Purna Virji – Rules of conversational AI

    Purna Virji, a senior manager at Microsoft delivered an incredibly thought-provoking presentation on what she calls ‘The 4 Cs of Conversational Design’: clarity, character, compassion, and correction.

    1. Clarity: Purna stressed that conversational AI needs to be as concise and intuitive as possible. This means that users need to be presented with clear choices and options, and that language must be as easy to understand. In her words, “Write for the ear, not for the eye.” Conversations need to sound natural, and this is not always synonymous with text that is written pleasantly.
    2. Character: By character, Purna described how bots need to have a distinct personality. Apparently, this has even been backed up by research which shows that people prefer it when they can quickly identify a bot’s character. Moreover, the character should be consistent with the task the bot needs to perform. For example, a banking bot should appear more professional than an entertainment bot.
    3. Compassion: Compassion and empathy are also crucial to an enjoyable bot. Two examples of this are anticipating customer problems (i.e. warning users of bank overdrafts) and the ability to engage in small talk. This latter point is where a lot of bots currently struggle but represents a function that many people expect a bot to provide.
    4. Correction: Alternatively phrased as ‘sorry not sorry’, correction refers to a bot’s ability to acknowledge an error and continue the conversation by providing an alternative correct response. As Purna correctly notes, perhaps the most frustrating thing about a bot is when it repeatedly tells you “Sorry, I do not understand”. Correction refers to the ability for the bot to understand where it’s making a mistake and attempt to rectify its mistake (rather than just repeatedly apologizing).

    Rich Pierson (interviewed by Ciara Byrne)

    Rich Pierson is the CEO and co-founder of Headspace, a meditation app I have used in the past (admittedly not on a long-term basis). As such, I was curious to learn more about its origins.

    Over the course of their 20-minute chat, Rich and Ciara covered a variety of topics. This included a discussion about the origins of the app, or as Ciara put it, the product of “a burnt out ad-man and a Buddhist monk”. Rich also discussed the problems with measuring engagement with an app that should ostensibly train people to put down their phone and practice mindfulness elsewhere in their life.

    Another interesting concept that surfaced during their chat was how people typically use Headspace, and how Rich hopes they use it in the future. Drawing the analogy of medicine, Rich indicated that many people try to use Headspace as an aspirin, or a fix to a problem they currently experience (such as anxiety). However, he hopes that more people come to treat it as a vitamin, or a preventative measure.

    Beyond the interesting concepts covered in the talk, Rich came across as a grounded and relatable CEO (which one might expect from someone who launched a meditation app). Clearly, his talk was effective, as I had already re-installed Headspace by the time I had left the auditorium for the next talk.

    Curious to learn more?

    If any of these topics appeal to you, you can find the full talks (and other great speakers) through TNW’s Youtube channel:

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