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Plea from Ukraine first lady kicks off annual tech summit in Portugal

One of the world's biggest tech conferences will get going in Lisbon on Wednesday, after Ukraine's first lady formally opened the event by urging participants to use their skills to save lives rather than end them.

Olena Zelenska told an audience of several thousand at the Web Summit's opening ceremony late on Tuesday not to put "technology at the service of terror" -- unlike some in Russia.

"Some IT specialists in Russia have made their choice to be aggressors and murderers," she said, urging attendees to make the opposite choice.

"I believe that technology should be used to create, save and help people, not destroy them."

The Web Summit brings together start-ups, investors, business leaders and agenda-broadening speakers –- linguist Noam Chomsky and heavyweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk are among this year's line-up.

Organisers said all 70,000 tickets had been sold for the first full-scale edition since coronavirus restrictions halted in-person gatherings in 2020.

One of the focuses this year is cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that underpins them.

Crypto prices have plummeted and surveys show that public interest is flatlining in the US, the principal market for retail investors.

Web Summit organiser Paddy Cosgrave told AFP last week that he was deeply sceptical about the entire crypto sector.

But at Tuesday's opening ceremony, Changpeng Zhao, boss of one of the world's biggest crypto companies Binance, tried to play down the crash.

He told the audience it was part of an economic cycle and argued that cryptocurrencies were in fact the most stable assets right now.

- 100 years of Twitter -

Zhao also faced questions about his decision to back Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter to the tune of $500 million.

The Binance chief told the audience in Portugal he was committed to the deal for the long haul.

"We anticipate to be involved for the next 10, 50, 100 years," he said, adding that Musk's guidance would make the platform much stronger in the decades to come.

Before Zhao got to the stage, the event was delayed for an hour when a camera fell from the ceiling of the arena, sending dozens of audience members fleeing and briefly spreading panic, though nobody was reported hurt.

The organisers described it as a "technical issue" and eventually restarted proceedings, but not before a flood of disgruntled messages on social media from attendees complaining of a lack of information.

The Web Summit comes at a tricky time for the tech industry, which is struggling with supply chain problems, trade disputes between the US and China, negative stories about big tech, and economic volatility that has sent investors fleeing.

Cosgrave is keen to show the event does not shy away from those issues, highlighting the platform it gives to whistleblowers.

This year's agenda includes Mark MacGann, who leaked thousands of documents about Uber's lobbying in Europe.

But the opening ceremony stuck resolutely to the idea of technology as a force for positive change.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa urged the audience to use technology to tackle pressing issues like climate change.

"Tech is not a panacea, but it can help to solve the problems that are in front of us," he said.

The organisers say more than 1,000 speakers will take part in the event, which runs until Friday, giving talks on subjects from cybersecurity to artificial intelligence.

jxb/smw