If this year’s annual gathering in Austin known as SXSW had one overriding theme, it might be “let’s get personal.” From politics of both the global and identity variety, to physical health and as well as wellness of the pocketbook array, to the continued evolution and potential impact of AI technology, the focus was on individual human experience. With an explosive cornucopia of content, here are a few observations culled from this year’s affair.
Since the creative and technology class comprise the majority of SXSW attendees, it goes without saying that the ascension of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency has many wondering what the future may hold. No less than 18 sessions were held with a post-Trump Presidency theme. With Trump’s immigration policies threatening access to the global technological talent pool, his name was seemingly on everyone’s lips. Featured speaker Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reedit, spoke poignantly about how his own mother was undocumented when she arrived in the States, escaping the genocide in Armenia. Other sessions tackled such topics as fake news and how to properly document politics in the coming years of angst and uncertainty.
Former Vice President Joe Biden perhaps surprisingly agreed to work with Trump in the fight against cancer, an issue he describes as “the last bipartisan issue.” Biden held sway over a standing room only crowd with his presentation, “The Urgency of Now: Launching the Biden Cancer Initiative.” Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer at the age 46 in 2015, said that his only regret in not running for president was that he “…would have loved to have been the president who presided over the end of cancer as we know it.” Biden spent much of his last year in office overseeing a “cancer moonshot” that resulted in the passage of a $6.3 billion research bill. He appealed to the audience of innovative thinkers to put their talents and skills to use in the effort to eradicate the disease. He cited, for example, the lack of information sharing among many different researchers and bemoaned the reality that today one can look up movie times, and yet there is no centralized repository for such research. While Amazon has donated cloud storage to permit such information sharing, much remains to be done, a challenge to the brainpower in the room.
The trend towards tracking and monitoring food intake and daily activity such as walking and running in order to create accountability and a healthier lifestyle, took on a more biotech edge at the gathering. For example, Habit, allows individuals to use kits priced at $300 to do blood work that will help identify what types of foods will work best for their genetic makeup. Based upon the blood analysis, Habit provides users with a personalized nutritional plan. But the initial study is really just a point of entry for a continuity program whereby the company sells customized meals to your door that are in alignment with your particular physiology.
Financial health and income inequality was addressed in several panels including “How to Ask for Money: Know Your Worth, Get Paid” which featured a panel of women addressing gender and ethnicity pay gaps and what the individual can do to mitigate it. Among their advice: to be your own biggest cheerleader and not your biggest critic, to brazenly raise your hand, and to not take rejection personally. The underlying theme of inclusion was reflected in many sessions which focused on how to give a broader array of people proper access to opportunity.
That opportunity is perhaps threatened by yet another trend that was pervasive at this year’s SXSW: Artificial Intelligence (AI). Intel Executive Vice President Diane Bryant, who oversaw a presentation entitled “AI: How Tech’s Next Revolution Will Change Lives,” demonstrated how their assisted motion capture system can now capture a 14-point movement map of a baseball player’s swing using a smartphone or tablet and cloud-based technology. Using AI, the data can then show the player his or her joint movement, interpret it against other players, and help identify what needs to be corrected in order for the batter to be more effective. This demonstration exemplified AI’s increasing ubiquity. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has described it, “We are on the cusp of a paradigm shift in computing that is like nothing we’ve seen in decades.” As the world has slowly adopted the smartphone as the first screen of choice, we are moving into one that will ultimately be AI-first. With all of the big players, including Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft pursuing AI initiatives, the Intel demonstration was just a single glimpse of what is to come.
The evolution of AI in the form of robots and its attendant controversies was the subject of a fascinating session entitled, “Robots vs. Jobs: Technological Displacement Is Here.” The session, presented by Otto Motors CEO Matt Rendall expressed the opinion that such technology is a good thing for society, yet he acknowledged that there is a decided lack of comfort in the U.S. over the threat it poses. Rendall believes that many mundane jobs such as pick, pack, and ship at a fulfillment house can be replaced by a combination of AI and industrial robotics that have the potential to transform automation on an unprecedented scale. And while Rendall believes this will ultimately lead to enhancements in overall quality of life, what exactly the workers who are displaced will do for a living remains to be seen, and may explain in part why the U.S. is lagging behind China and Korea in its pursuit of such advancements. Given the hyperbole of the current Administration and its zeal to bring back manufacturing jobs to American shores, the role of such technology is unclear, though it is most assuredly coming in an era where a government mandated $15 minimum wage will force the adoption of such human-replacing innovation.
Such advancements will create opportunity, but will also undoubtedly create disruption. The pursuit of equality juxtaposed with technology that could very well exacerbate inequality hung over the festival a bit like Big Brother. The festival itself seems to grow longer tentacles with each passing year, a phenomenon which is perhaps simpatico and only natural given it’s in keeping with the Lone Star State mantra, “Everything is Bigger in Texas.”
Peter Koeppel is Founder and President of Koeppel Direct, an influential direct response media firm focused on direct response television (DRTV), online, print and radio media buying, marketing and campaign management. He can be reached at 972-732-6110, online at firstname.lastname@example.org, or twitter.com/DRTVBUYER.