Monday, 21 March 2016

Thoughts on SXSW 2016

Don't like words, just like pictures? Then check out this technology-focused photo album compiled by myself and Lorenzo Wood, or my broader Austin photos in this Flickr album. Warning: it will make you hungry.

Austin was magnificent, as always. A mix of great company (cap doffed at Warren, Dave, Gavin, Lorenzo and others), amazing food (BBQ at Kreuz Market, amazing steaks, OMG brisket) and terrific entertainment (The White Horse, Pedalo Karaoke, Buffalo Billiards) adds up to a winning combination. Was fab having so many DigitasLBi colleagues there from around the world too.

As for the actual sessions, there are over 1,500 to choose from now, no really, which not only means you can only attend a tiny percentage, but also means you end up choosing the ones you want based on session title only. Who has the time to read 1,500 synopses, never mind thousands of speaker bios? I heard quite a few grumbles about the quality of the talks, but it's impossible to manage. Lanyrd used to be brilliant at crowdsorting through this mess, helping sort the wheat from the chaff, but that's only worthwhile if everyone's using it. Hopefully the Upcoming renaissance will be ready for next time.

The net result was that the sessions I attended were an equal spread of awesome, good and poor. But the awesome ones alone made everything worthwhile, especially those exploring the cutting edge of AI. Obviously AlphaGo's success was the talk of the town, but it was the nature of the success that was so exciting. By making moves that humans couldn't predict or understand, it gave an insight into our machine-dominated future. 

In the short term, we can expect ongoing examples of narrow excellence, much as we've seen already going back to Deep Blue and Watson, but coming thicker and faster. The big difference between these and AlphaGo is that we didn't teach the computer how to play Go, we taught it how to learn. As we, and they, get better at this, the growth becomes exponential, especially when we invite these learning machines to deal with systems that are too complex for humans to process or understand. 

As with AlphaGo, they'll probably find insights and opportunities that are beyond our comprehension, leaving us with the question: when should we start to put our faith in them?

Plus the way these systems overlap with biotechnology, genetics and nanotechnology is truly scary - and not in a good way. I still highly recommend the Wait But Why article on this. 

I digress. Back to the talks. I particularly enjoyed the talk given by Dag Kittlaus, whose team developed Siri. He's now working on a system which not only lets you upload data sets into the cloud for their systems to combine and learn from, but which also has a voice interface. He imagines a world where his 'v' logo is as ubiquitous as the Bluetooth logo - when you see it, you can talk to it. An incredibly smart and engaging speaker. Check out viv.ai to find out more.

What else? Obama was excellent (no I didn't win the ballot and see him in person) - watch the video when you get a minute. JJ Abrams was good, talking about imbuing robots with human characteristics to drive empathy. Kevin Kelly was engaging as always - he talked about pills that can measure you from inside your body, and dictate the contents of the pill for the following day. Far out. 

The keynote by the Under Armour CEO (Kevin Plank) was pretty inspirational too, albeit in a chest thumping kind of way. His main message was that it isn't good enough to have a connected ecosystem that tells you about past or present events - it needs to guide you on the future as well. We already have constituent parts (apps) that help us understand diet, exercise, sleep, wellbeing, happiness and more - but as yet nothing stitches it together very well to help you make smart decisions in real time. I believe the companies that get this right across each sector have a bright future.

And VR was everywhere. We're clearly at the tipping point. Check the photos for some interesting applications, including how you can trick people into walking around a virtual environment that's larger than the room you're standing in. 

One final personal note. It's three years since I was last at SXSW, but the combination of Uber plus Vodafone's $5-a-day roaming plan made the whole experience so much better. No more waiting for the shuttle bus, no more missed sessions, no more waiting for an hour at 3am for taxis, no more worrying about missing flights. RIP Austin taxis. 

So that's it. SXSW isn't without its detractors, but it brings to mind the old Yogi Berra quote - nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded. As a conference it's challenging to get the best out of the experience, but if you relax a little and strike the right balance between sessions, entertainment, the trade hall, networking, socialising, eating and generally soaking up Austin, it's still the best nerdfest the world has to offer. Viva la South-By!

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