SXSW 2017 - Let's get this event underway

In the taxi taking me from airport to Airbnb I noticed thick black smoke ahead. A cement truck was on fire in the middle of the highway, unchecked flames pouring from it as drivers veered around it.

Welcome to Austin.

This image came back to me during the first talk of my first full day at SXSW: “Navigating a rapidly changing and connected world”; a free-ranging discussion covering AI, IoT, education technology, business partnerships, entrepreneurship, and 3D printing. The panel touched on the idea that IoT would have its own “Fukoshima” level of disaster and that – despite recognising this – we’re all still (literally) driving towards this because the convenience outweighs any obvious and catastrophic risks.

Disaster figured large in other parts of this first session too – but with a positive spin. Steve Case picked up on the way New Orleans has developed as a centre and talent magnet for EdTech, as the school system and provision was reimagined in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

That regional view was fleshed out further with an analogy around Detroit as the “silicon valley” of the previous century, the shiny hub for the newest technology – automobiles. The subsequent impact of not keeping up with the times resulted in a population decrease of around 60% over the decades since. This conversation led to the almost inevitable discussion around AI, automation and widespread joblessness… a third potential disaster to add into the mix. One point that resonated with my own take on AI as augmenter was that people were often willingly engaging in the process to automate their own jobs in order to liberate themselves for the more fulfilling aspects of their work.

One part of this process I would love to be liberated from is the perpetual queuing for sessions. In previous years people have apparently paid to have others stand in line for them, a real life example of having an intelligent avatar acting on your behalf, but this has been shut down this time.

That only makes it more frustrating when the sessions you eventually get in to turn out to be less than inspiring. A panel on labs (innovation centres within or spun out from enterprises) was lacking in the depth or practical application for the organisations I typically represent, and too often seemed to just playback what I’d have expected people to know already.

I bounced from this to “The future of intelligent machines”, where Richard Yonck outlined his vision (utopian or dystopian depending on your attitude) to deep personalisation driven by increasingly emotionally aware machines. In this ‘Emotional economy’ it’s a straight line projection from technology today to a potentially much more ‘predatory’ shopping experience, where facial twitches and subtle shifts in body posture are used by businesses to adapt offers in real time to stack the odds against us and leverage this emotional context at the micro-level to drive revenue. Less a call to smash the machines and more a call to an informed look at the risks around emotionally enabled systems. I’ll touch on the power of emotionally enabling experiences separately, but for now, here’s a video of an emotionally enabled BB-8 to keep things happy.

From the future of intelligent machines to our own future, as keynote speaker Jennifer Doudna (professor of molecular and cell biology and chemistry at the University of California) took us on the journey from bacterial DNA editing to the frighteningly powerful potential of current techniques to edit our own genetics and that of our descendants with incredible precision. Despite studying genetics while at University, I won’t pretend to have followed the full mechanics(!) but the application is essentially a cheap and simple process for a molecular biologist to follow and opens up a realm of manipulation across virtually any organism including ourselves.

“We have the ability to control our own evolution” is one of the sobering outcomes, which is why Jennifer then spent the remainder of her talk outlining the ethical implications, the impact of ‘tinkering’ in a way that’s heritable, and fielding questions – some of them truly bonkers – from the gathered audience.

To avoid the session queues, I then took a walk in the rain (Rain! ridiculous) to the IBM house which is dedicated to innovation in IoT and Watson AI. This was a really well thought out curated set of areas around how IBM is contributed to health, education, creativity & arts. I particularly liked the home setup designed to show how sensors and behavioural pattern analysis could support a future where people look to live independently at home but still gain support if things go wrong. In a slightly less altruistic zone, you could answer a series of questions to Watson aligned to taste preferences and then help train it by rating beers it selects for you to drink. Our own Mando Beer Fridge would be jealous of being able to ultimately provide a personal beer crafted to all our team.

From burning truck to ice cold beer. Sounds like progress to me.

If you'd like to know more about my trip to SXSW 2017, get in touch via Twitter @mandoagency @jay_seal