This is the second of two posts about SXSW. The previous one looked at the experiential trends, you can read it here. This post is focused on the key tech trends. And there are 3 topics that kept coming up time and again:-
- the implications of cars that can store and process information within the IoT,
- the possibilities and the possible horrors of robot takeover
- and VR’s move from fad to function.
Trend 1 – Smart cities, autonomous cars
Imagine driving to work and catching up on your latest book, or if you have kids catching up on sleep! And the ride is smooth, because there’s no stop/start, no congestion, instead you arrive on time, because the city you are driving through is smart and is managing the traffic.
Beyond that, you might have been slowed down at any point to avoid skidding on wet roads because other cars have been sending micro-weather reports to the Federal Government or to the Met Office.
Great, right? But cities and cars and governments are directly in relationship. And that relationship is raising questions.
For instance, if your car can send micro-reports about weather, it can send reports about how your car is driving. Or is that about how you are driving? And what does that mean for your privacy?
And how do you manage relationships between cars that are driving together on the same road? Do you trust them to give you the right information?
And what if a criminal decides to hack the stop signs that talk to your car and regulate city traffic stopping you from getting to vote?
What’s driving all this? IoT is established and becoming embedded in our environments way beyond tools like Nest. Manufacturers are pushing ahead, investing in AI and testing and selling autonomous vehicles. Cities see all kinds of benefits in cost reduction via things like lighting management and congestion or pollution management and government is playing catch up on policy and regulation.
No one had all the answers but the interest was intense.
Trend 2 – AI/Robot takeover
When you consider that Ford has just announced a $1bn investment in AI over the next 5 years and hotel chains like Crowne Plaza are testing a delivery robot you can see the AI and robotic services are a mainstream proposition.
There were 2 different strands to the discussion. The first was largely positive:
- Amazon delivery drones on the street
- Bill Ford talking about drones being released from F150s for search and delivery
- Discussion of how to create sound for robots
- A plea for school kids to be taught how to develop AI so that they will be able to come and study it and improve at a later date (Carnegie Mellon)
- Conversations with robots in the Japan House
The second was way more cautious, almost fearful:
- There are 2 other things we do not currently teach those developing AI systems – Ethics and Problem Solving. Yet they are essential to developing AI responsibly.
- Implications of robotics and AI for the workforce are that ‘47% of total US employment is in the high-risk category, meaning that associated occupations are potentially automatable over…the [next] decade or two’ Fray and Osborne 2017
- Likely to hit service and white collar workers – how do we conceive of what it means to be employed, have a job, to have self-respect and self-value etc?
- The scenario that arises when an autonomous car has to choose between the safety of a crowd and the safety of its passengers
There were some great installations to explore the possibilities. IBM was there in force demonstrating the abilities of its Watson AI. I got a very wearable t-shirt based on a ‘conversation’ with Watson. There was also a system for monitoring the homes of the elderly so that they can live more independently. There was also an application that used AI to create new music based on your choice of mood or mix of styles.
There were also some ‘realistic’ robots you could have a conversation with, sort of and some creative projects exploring the use of AI in product design.
Undoubtedly the rise of robots is going to change our world. The creative classes and white collar workers have been safely insulated from the drive to automation that has decimated the blue collar workforce. The drive at SXSW was around both how that is managed and how we push towards a positive future.
Trend 3 – VR/AR/MR
It’s the cool new kid on the block and last year it was a strong emerging strand. But this year there was a whole room dedicated to VR experiences.Someone described it to me as VR finding it’s level, beginning to move from fad to function.
Many different players were there from NASA to Creative Industries Funding NL showcasing pro-social, creative and art projects in VR. There were also art installations in conjunction with for example the New Museum in New York using VR to immerse you in a different cultural experience.
And there was a lot of discussion about how it can work best. For instance, VR can be an isolating medium and we are innately social animals, so how can we best create social experiences with VR? Sony’s WoW Factory had a game played alongside/against 3 other players including motion, wind and digital interaction in the space. It was great fun and engaging to watch as well as play.
The key driver this year was the way that we may start to integrate technology into our lives far beyond looking at a screen. It is moving into a space where our life and our technology are almost inseparable. There are ethical and emotional consequences for that, but the SXSW crowd will certainly be there to explore and expose those way before the rest of us. That’s a comforting thought.