Artificial intelligence is clearly the star of South by Southwest Interactive 2017. CampaignLive called it “the new digital oil” as panels from potential applications to ethics resounded at SXSW (or SXSWi, as the interactive portion of the conference is called).
Mark Cuban, the billionaire star of ABC’s Shark Tank and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, told the SXSW audience, “the world’s first trillionaires are going to come from somebody who masters AI and all its derivatives and applies it in ways we never thought of.”
Consider the slew of panels on AI this SXSW, with topics including:
AI & social change (“AI for Good: Harnessing Power to Solve Problems“)
AI & music (“Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be AI“)
AI & fashion (“Artificial Intelligence is the Future of Fashion“)
AI & kids (“AI in America: Preparing Our Kids“)
AI & food (“How AI/Machine Learning Will Change the Way We Eat“)
Next-gen AI (“Augmented Intelligence: The Next-Gen AI“)
AI & the smart home (“AI’s Final Frontier: Your Living Room“)
AI & human intelligence (“HI + AI: What’s the Future of Intelligence?“)
Humanizing AI (“Giving a Face to AI“)
AI & policy implications (“AI and Deep Learning Tech: Are We Ready?“)
Siri co-creator Adam Cheyer of Viv Labs (now owned by Samsung) argued on a panel that AI should be viewed as an evolutionary tool to augment human intelligence, and thus should be viewed as “augmented” (rather than “artificial”) intelligence.
— Patrick Salami (@psalami) March 11, 2017
Other AI-related panels featured brand execs discussing variations on how AI helps parse complex data through machine learning, enhancing and augmenting capabilities rather than merely removing human roles.
Kohl’s director of technology Garima Agarwal, on a retail innovation panel, spoke of using machine learning to build an “under-the-hood” system for her team to better handle technological and societal changes occurring at digital speed.
“I’m a big machine learning fan,” Agarwal stated. “Smarter machines are definitely a reality, and it’s important for us to embrace that. Machine learning can truly transform your business.”
— IBM Watson (@IBMWatson) March 15, 2017
From a simulation of a company under cyberattack learning about blockchain networks, IBM was ubiquitous, with numerous opportunities to interact with IBM Watson and CEO Ginni Rometty, who appeared on the big stage in a session with Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky.
Watson demos were held in the IBM Makers’ Garage, where attendees could create a bot, remix a song, design a t-shirt or get a beer recommendation.
She gave examples of FarmLogs, cutting-edge farm management software with unbiased insights and recommendations to help growers remotely achieve optimal yield. She also introduced Clinc, an AI startup that developed Finie, a customizable, voice-activated personal financial assistant and intelligence platform for banks.
— Kate Crawford (@katecrawford) March 11, 2017
Sounding warning bells, Microsoft Research’s Kate Crawford warned that AI is ‘ripe for abuse’ and ‘a fascist’s dream,’ and that society must prepare for authoritarian movements to test the ‘power without accountability’ of AI. Her SXSW session, “Dark Days: AI and the Rise of Fascism,” examined how large-scale automated systems and their encoded biases can be misused.
Crawford argues that AI systems must be more transparent and accountable. “The ocean of data is so big… We have to map their complex subterranean and unintended effects.” Crawford has founded AI Now, a research community focused on the social impacts of artificial intelligence, to do just that.
— Michael Chase (@chasethisnow) March 14, 2017
On the IoT front, there were activations powered by Microsoft’s HoloLens hologram platform while Sony’s Wow Factory featured its Xperia Touch portable projector, which turns any surface into a touchscreen.
Beyond AI, SXSW featured wearable tech, VR and its share of drones again. VR startups Virtuix, Cam4VR and 8i presented their creative work and the latter’s 10-minute film starred Buzz Aldrin and his mission to have humans colonize Mars. National Geographic, Walmart, NASA and Universal Pictures all exhibited activations.
Podcasters from Gimlet, which just made a deal with eBay, jostled with wearable tech gurus like Thad Starner, the mastermind behind Google Glass, who showed-off advanced wearable gloves that teach your muscles how to play the piano in half an hour and sensors that allow search and rescue dogs to communicate with their handlers.” Starner commented that “bringing tech closer to the body gets it out the way.”
On the transportation front in Austin, with Uber and Lyft out, Fasten, the official rideshare brand of SXSW Interactive 2017, emerged a winner. The Boston-based startup that launched in 2015 and offers drivers a good deal: pay Fasten $1 per ride completed and keep the rest of the fares outside of a small credit-card fee.
Wired, perhaps weary of year after year of breakthrough ideas that fizzed out, had this to say about SXSW 2017:
“This year, the conference itself feels a lot like a hangover. It’s as if the coastal elites who attend each year finally woke up with a serious case of the Sunday scaries, realizing that the many apps, platforms, and doodads SXSW has launched and glorified over the years haven’t really made the world a better place. In fact, they’ve often come with wildly destructive and dangerous side effects. Sure, it all seemed like a good idea in 2013! But now the party’s over. It’s time for the regret-filled cleanup.”