Humble and human: how this year's SXSW points to a brighter brand future

From fear to ethics, SXSW is growing up and that gives us reasons to be hopeful.

When you are in the middle of it, it feels almost impossible to try and sum up a weeklong conference with the breadth and depth of SXSW in a simple word or phrase.

However, if you subscribe to the view that last years’ conference and festival was the "fear " one – specifically fear of the human purpose-stealing potential of artificial intelligence (AI). Then three days into SXSW 2018 I’d venture to call this year’s event the "Humble and Human" one.

Last year’s fierce but somewhat impotent anger has evolved into acceptance. Despite the huge personal, societal and corporate tensions that technology has caused – and maybe still is causing – we can, if we get on with it, make the future in the image of humans, not machines.

Nowhere is this debate more sharply felt than around the effect of AI. The talks around this subject have spun out three themes that should be of interest to people in the marketing community.

Connected empathy

The idea that we should build products and services capable of picking up our emotions via sensors and learning what these inputs mean via AI, was a constant theme in the first half of SXSW. This thinking extends to all types of environments – from the personal spaces of the home and car, to shared spaces like cities.

As an example, Kaijen Hsiao, founder and chief roboticist of Mayfield Robotics, and creator of Kuri – a ‘home robot’ companion – talked about the need to create home robots as anthropomorphised "critters" who are expressive and responsive. Or in other words, who look like they understand us as we interact with them and who can take an action based on all of the inputs they take from within the home.

Machine ethics

Once you’ve built machines that can on some level understand us emotionally, they should, in theory, be more aligned with our goals. And have a better understanding of the ethics we’d like them to adopt.

There is, of course, a debate around whose ethics an AI might follow. But it now appears possible with a combination of AI, blockchain and machine learning to create a robust set of ethics.

AI created business models

Once you have created a better understanding of human beings and used this training data to create a code of ethics for machine behaviour, it feels logical that machines could be trusted to create new endeavours on their own that create value for us.

On the standout panel, I've attended so far, "Exploring Innovations in AI", Nell Watson from the Singularity University said that "in about five years, some people in this room will essentially be employed by machines, to do tasks the machines can’t do". Nell went on to say that the profits of those businesses would be returned to human beings, almost like ‘machine social responsibility’. 

All three of these are examples of humans and machines working together. And when stacked on top of each, give us a new a model in which to build new products and services and even brand-new businesses.

It also suggests that a strong understanding of brand and the people who have it, might be very important in the future. The current focus for our industry is worrying about how AI can be used to automate marketing. We should instead be thinking about how the core building blocks of good marketing – consumer understanding, brand purpose and mutual value creation – could be used to help AI to build better, kinder, more human businesses in the future. 

Maybe the robots aren’t out to get us after all.

Lawrence Weber is managing partner at Karmarama, part of Accenture Interactive, and a director of Innovation Social.

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