Ask an SXSW survivor and they’ll tell you it can be a real assault on the senses. It comes in layers. First is the Texas layer where the open carrying of loaded weapons and macaroni cheese on a hotdog isn’t considered absolute madness.
Then there are the sessions. There are literally hundreds every day, from "Do you speak dog?" to "The future of warfare"… and everything inbetween. Your mission each morning is to figure out how you’re going to chain all the best ones together while leaving enough time to eat, wee and queue for the next session.
The next layer is the corporate house layer. Bars, parking lots and any spare building in the downtown area are taken over by companies with something to say or demo. IBM House was full of machine learning demos and exhibits showcasing Watson. You’ll find houses for everything from robot startups to huge mega-corps. Some are invite only, most you just wander in to steal stickers.
And finally, there’s the social layer. Come 6pm, the sessions pretty much end and then it becomes a bit of a random scramble to find the coolest parties at the coolest houses… or just head for a bar or restaurant.
Every day is frantic but after a few evening beers, the trends start to settle out from the chaos of the day’s sessions. Here are a few of the themes that we talked about the most…
AI isn’t trying to kill us, yay!
Put rather succinctly by Rob High, CTO for IBM Watson, "It’s not Artificial Intelligence, it’s Augmented Intelligence". Very much a theme was refocusing AI as helping humans achieve more rather than replacing humans.
With the rise of "intelligent assistants", key traits like obedience, empathy, authority and humour are being actively heightened. And just like cars created more jobs than horses ever did, we’re fully expecting that the rise of A.I. will add more jobs than it takes away.
Stop pretending to be a computer
When you think about it, we’ve been trying to be computers since they were invented. We’ve spent too long tapping square buttons, scrolling through lists, entering data into forms. No more. Many sessions featured examples where machine learning was used to understand emotions (via subtle facial movements for example) or physical feedback to mimic our gestures. The next generation of "devices" won’t just tell us where the bar is, they’ll point at it too.
The MegaCorps have arrived
Previous SXSW conferences felt like a hotbed of start-ups. Now we’re seeing the likes of IBM and Sony wade in with productised versions of the same technologies.
Get your head around Blockchain
If you have never heard of blockchain or still think it’s just about BitCoin, you have some research to do. In a nutshell, blockchain is a public, distributed database for securely keeping track of information online. Ideally sequences or related information.
Great for online money systems but increasingly used for verifying the identity of citizens, tracking product distribution, identifying IP infringements or, as is very topical, verifying the course of news and revealing fake news. How will your business embrace blockchain? Get reading…
AI is trying to kill us, sorry
As a direct two fingers up to the move towards more emotional, human computing, there were plenty of talks from the CIA, FBI, Department of Homeland Security and various hacker groups about tech wanting to kill you.
In short, yes, the US does have swarms of micro drones that it can launch from fighter jets to "take the leading edge of risk" before coalescing en-masse to neutralise a defined target. What keeps Will Roper, director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities office up at night? "Data". Not guns, data is really the new battlefield.
The rise of the superhuman
While it can sound like humans are doomed, that really wasn’t the vibe this year. Far from it. The human race is fighting back. Gene editing technology CRISPR can genetically alter a human’s DNA. Used positively, it can cure an entire family line of illnesses like sickle cell disease or Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But as the afore-mentioned Pentagon guy noted, they are looking at creating generically modified super soldiers. If only they could find the genes to tweak. Watch this space.
An epic panel saw "the FBI dude" pitched against "the commercial face-tracking software dude", only, the roles were weirdly switched. It was the surprisingly moral commercial world screaming for regulation and the FBI often left with eyebrows raised stating "I did not know you could do that… and that worries me".
It brought into focus fast the ground is moving and how legislators are always two steps behind.
It really felt like the themes at SXSW 2017 had grown-up. It was less about what it is and more what you do with it. Assuming we haven’t been wiped out by swarms of AI controlled super-humans, hopefully see ya’ll in 2018.
Dino Burbidge is the director of technology & innovation, WCRS.