From Europe: reflections, ruminations, musings and reactions regarding art, culture, media, politics, science, technology and travel


Gregory P. Bufithis

The Mobile World Congress: every technology event should be run like this

[ plus a short reflection from Day 1:
IBM's Watson tries to think like Antoni Gaudi ]

For my pre-MWC post from last weekend on the "history of mobile" click here


27 February 2017 - It's easy to get distracted at MWC what with 115,000+ attendees expected this year ... up from 102,000+ last year, which exceeded 2015 (95,000+).  It has long been an essential date in the mobile industry calendar given the potential client/customer base. With the highest number of CxOs at any technology event.
Yes, there are panels and training sessions (the mobile forensics classes are brilliant) and keynotes. But those panels and keynotes are in the background, not the main event.  MWC is a proper trade show - most people are here to do business, network, discuss deals, meet with press, and socialize. The booths are big (and mostly devoid of Booth Babes) and well-staffed but the real work is in the scores of meeting rooms, and at dinners and parties.  As my chums from Orange always say "Mobile World Congress really runs from 6 p.m. to 4 am".    And look ... it's Barcelona and it's beautiful outside.
This is all spread out across 260,000 square meters ... roughly  a 15-20 minute walk from the North end to the South end of the exhibit hall area ... but the folks from the GSM Association (GSMA) ... the organizers of MWC ... make it so easy to navigate. If you are in any part of technology space, this is heaven.
  • You start by hitting Barcelona airport (or the train stations) where there are "fast track" registration booths (that start on the weekend before the event and run all week. This saves you the time of registering at the event on Monday.  The lines are fast ... there are 15 registration windows:

You pick-up your conference badge and conference materials (including a Metro pass for the week), aided by a crackerjack GSMA staff that can resolve almost any problem you might have, make scores of suggestions concerning how to cover the event, where to take a eat/drink break, last minute accommodations (3,000+ hotels offer reduced rates for the week), etc.
And if you have booked at one of the participating hotels, you'll find a MWC "welcome package" there, too, with coupons, maps, etc.
  • By now of course you have downloaded the conference interactive agenda app on your phone(s) and tablet(s), you have pre-selected sessions/panels, and explored the exhibitor list to set up your networking contacts/meetings, all via your MWC personal account. And you have most likely been emailed by other attendees who wish to meet you.

The apps is brilliant.  You can access the names of the attendees, options to send them messages, request meetings, see exhibitor profiles, see the entire event schedule with seminars, keynotes and partner events, maps of the event, receive last-minute alerts, etc., etc.
Oh, and you have set up your Mobile World Live TV account to stream the stuff that you cannot fit into your schedule.

  • In the enormous exhibit halls (there are 14) a bevy of GSMA personnel in red GSMA ... they hire 2,000+ students ... are spread about to guide you/get you where you need to be. They are even in the Metro and on the bus routes to the venue to make sure you do not get lost:

  • There are recharging stations galore for cell phone, laptops, tablets, etc., many near the benches spread out across the venue:

  • Most, most importantly there are common meeting areas for a networking "meet & greet", a nap, a break, etc. (each usually filled with the day's newspapers, magazines, etc.) ... as well as scores of private meeting areas if you have a silver, gold or platinum badge.

  • And food/drink (mini-outlets and full restaurants) abound so you are always just a few steps away from refreshment and so you do not miss the beat of the event, miss a connection, miss meeting a contact.  In fact, some are only for vendors so they can take a quick break:


NOTE: many of the vendors have private meeting areas/spaces which ... if you are nice ... will let you use even if not directly related to them. Many have their own coffee/snack bars ...and quite a few have full bars as in alcoholic refreshment.

  • And and you would expect the Wi-Fi connections throughout the complex are excellent although my team always comes loaded with Spanish mobile SIM cards.

What to cover
As I noted above, it's easy to get distracted at MWC.  There is a lot to cover.  For this post, just one topic:  if machine learning is about teaching a computer to think like humans do, can they be taught to think like a specific person? A great artist, maybe? And if they can think like a great artist, could they also create art like one?

To test this idea, IBM's cognitive computing engine Watson has been tasked with trying to think like Antoni Gaudi, the Catalan modernist whose fusion of organic and orient-inspired architecture permeates his home city of Barcelona.

During the  Congress conference, a team of designers from New York agency SOFTLab will create a sculpture, "informed" by Watson. In preparation the IBM machine learning system was fed hundreds of images of Gaudi's work, as well as images related to Barcelona and its culture. Documents such as biographies, historical articles and song lyrics on the theme were then added to the mix. It should look something like this:

Inspired by Gaudí, created with Watson;
reminiscent of Gaudi's work, yet at the same time very distinct

Watson's visual recognition, natural language processing and color matching tools were then used to identify objects, themes and ideas - Gaudi's as well as those that inspired him - and use them as the foundation of its own work.

Jonas Nwuke, IBM Watson manager, said:

The idea, without wanting to sound too dramatic, is that if you can distil some of the essence of the original artist's work then you can give that to Watson and it can go out and find it in other places - other images and pieces of information - and bring it back to the artists, who can use what it finds as an inspiration or a starting point.

Now, granted: no one has given Watson arms yet - so it still needs human help if it wants to put together a physical sculpture. Last year, Google's Deep Mind beat the greatest human Go player ... but it could not move the pieces on the board. So the role is still very much that of "augmentation" rather than replacement for human creativity.

Nwuke again:
It's about this distillation of the relationship between people and machines - and what we are trying to communicate is this idea that - we don't believe we're marching towards a world where the machine is making decisions and providing directions - it's just providing a little boost, an in this case a bit of inspiration that may or may not have come about naturally.

The human sculptors and designers responsible for putting together the finished work of art from wrought iron, which has been unveiled this week at the conference, said that Watson suggested a theme of natural organic shapes and structures, such as beehives, crabs and shellfish, which had not immediately been apparent to them.  

Yes, there is certainly a gut instinct reaction that tells us that there is something essentially human in art that can't be replicated by a robot. If we instructed a robot to paint a picture of a human being, and it produced a painting of the standard of the Mona Lisa, would we consider the robot be the equal of Da Vinci? Machine learning is about replicating human thought (and creativity) and discovery certainly plays an important part in those processes.

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