5 emerging tech trends at SXSW that will shape 2018

Blockchain, bio-hacking and AR are just a few chewy topics adland is tackling this year.

It’s March, which means winter is ending, the clocks decide to lose an hour and the luck of the Irish is celebrated. It’s also the time of the year when thousands of Ad Executives, Technologists, Designers, Brands and Creative folk descend on the sleepy, quirky town of Austin for the SXSW Interactive festival. Poor Austin.

Seen as a beacon of new technology and emerging trends, this year’s event is no different. Let’s dive into the world of blockchain-controlled sentient robots that will diversify technology with a list of the emerging technical trends of 2018.

1. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Sadly, generalized intelligence (think Hal 9000) is still a dream in engineer’s mind. However, that doesn’t mean that AI isn’t still a hot topic for 2018. With computers getting faster and GPU’s being re-purposed, we’re seeing an explosion of innovation, from machine-learning models to validate brand creative to those that create unique art and music.

Companies like IBM and Getty Images are asking how they can apply large scale AI to the creative process, and what that means for their business. Meanwhile, L’Oréal is applying machine-learning to improve product recommendations through its smart hairbrush. Despite all that, some of the more compelling topics this year are around the ethics and morality of AI. As AI is used in more serious applications (like self-driving cars and medicine), we rely on machines to make life-or-death decisions. Who is responsible for these decisions, and what rules do they follow? Still a Wild West to be figured out.

2. Blockchain
Blockchain—the unsung, although quickly being sung, hero of cryptocurrency. The last few years of SXSW may have been around Bitcoin, but this year has shifted to blockchain. What is blockchain? It’s the distributed, verifiable ledger that powers cryptocurrency and thousands of other applications outside of money.

This year, we’re seeing the results of blockchain application to industries across the board: Healthcare startups are using it to distribute and verify patient records, governments are looking at it for passport control, and arts and entertainment organizations are looking at applying it to rights management. Even transportation companies like Toyota are looking at how blockchain can be used in the future of mobility.

3. Bio-Hacking
Wearables on steroids and accessible bio-science. Over the past 10 years, bio-hacking—using science or tech to affect biology—has had a bit of an underground following. This year, we’re seeing this sector grow up with a wide range of applications. Companies like Illumina are leading the charge in what it means to roll out widespread genetic testing, and the impact it has on society. Meanwhile, other companies are looking at how 3D printing can help prosthetic development.

4. Virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR)
This is the maturation of VR. Over the past year, both the technology behind VR and its adoption have evolved. This year, we’re seeing people talk about the application of VR/AR into spaces outside of gaming and entertainment. Companies like Google and The Washington Post are looking at how VR can impact news and storytelling. Time + Life VR, Framestore, and Stanford University are developing VR applications for medicine such as their experience LUMEN, which helps children prepare for heart surgery.

5. Diversity and Ethics
Not so much a technical trend, but a concept underpinning many talks this year at SXSW is this question: How does technology impact diversity, and what are the ethical implications of the things we make. Permeating AI, blockchain, bio-hacking and VR, we see a constant trend on how technology can and should be used responsibly, and the impacts and implications of running at 10,000 miles an hour down innovation highway. Tackling topics as broad as leadership, team diversity, training blue collar workers for a technical future, and creating software for people with disabilities—we see a consistent trend of people focusing in on diversity, inclusion and ethics.  

This year, hiding behind the parties and brand activations, we’re seeing some strong technical currents with a dose of responsibility and morality. As we march into 2018, I’m excited to see the future that we all can create.

David Justus is executive director of technology at AKQA