Each year in March, the city of Austin, Texas, becomes home to South by Southwest, a conglomerate of conferences that cover music, film and interactive industries. As a digital practitioner, I’ve found SXSW Interactive to be a uniquely valuable source of insight into emerging technologies.

The breadth of content at SXSW can be as daunting as the duration: a five-day calendar with dozens of venues and thousands of sessions makes planning an art form in itself.

Taking into account all the SXSW conferences I’ve been to, one thing is very clear: the pace of change is only moving faster.

South by Southwest 2017 had one profound differentiator to the four I’d previously attended, though. Whereas earlier years focused on ‘what if’ scenarios and looked at technology as an imminent arrival, the latest conference immersed us in the world of today. Forecasted changes have already arrived and keeping up is a challenge in itself – let alone harnessing the full potential of such new and emerging technologies.

Here are some of the key reflections from the conference:

Artificial intelligence
is huge

I recognise I’ve stated the obvious. In what way was AI a standout at SXSW? Just about every session I attended (around 20 panels and keynotes) dealt with the consideration of computer intelligence versus that of humans.

While not a new theme for SXSW, a common denominator in all the 2017 discussions was data. Not just who controls the data from a privacy perspective, but which organisations own it and how it’s being used for machine learning and AI.

In the keynote, author and Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil re-affirmed his prediction that humans and artificial intelligence will merge in an event known as ‘the singularity’ by 2045. “By 2029, computers will have human-level intelligence,” he said. “We’re going to make ourselves more intelligent by using brain extenders. [We already have these outside our bodies] – the important distinction is when these are inside our bodies”

Similarly, Adam Cheyer, co-founder of Siri, Inc, thinks singularity is unlikely to come soon. He argued that AI should be seen as evolutionary and will “augment our intelligence over a period of time”.

Takeaway: As computing power accelerates, the data available to the machine is what will make the difference between success and failure. For example, having used Gmail for a decade, there are millions of data points that Google can use to provide an intelligence layer to me as a consumer – just one example that reinforces data as a valuable currency in our connected society.

Virtual reality and mixed/augmented reality
are accelerating faster than imagined

Tech evangelist Robert Scoble led a panel featuring VR/AR experts Nonny de la Peña and Shawn DuBravac that examined use cases for VR and mixed reality.

DuBravac shared the view that the technology is only steps away from many real-world applications, such as immersing jurors in virtual reality crime scenes. De la Peña, who runs VR/AR production company Emblematic Group, gave the example of the Walk Again Project, in which VR is being used to help paraplegics regain some control of paralysed limbs¹. Scoble talked about the potential for VR and mixed reality to contribute to pain management².

Takeaway: If you haven’t experienced virtual, augmented or mixed reality, then now’s the time to do so in order to understand the breadth and power of its potential applications.

People and culture remain the biggest barrier
to change inside organisations

I loved Adam Grant’s interactive keynote, Six Ways to be an Original. It’s about a manager’s dilemma inside a company, which is essentially: ‘If I bet on a really bad idea, this is going to embarrass me and ruin my career. If I reject a good idea, great news! No one will ever know.’

The theme extended well beyond Grant, with Vint Cerf, co-designer of TCP/IP protocols, speaking about the criticality of the right team on Tunisia’s Tawasol connectivity program, an initiative that seeks to provide internet access to elementary schools, with a focus on STEM education. “You have to have people committed and trained in order to make connectivity useful and sustainable,” he said, arguing that technology and infrastructure alone are not enough.

DuBravac posed the question “Do you think Google researched the use case of Google Home telling you the time in your kitchen?” and how product design had changed to the point where we often don’t know the use cases until the technology is deployed and we find benefits in unforeseen ways. Does your company embrace that type of thinking?

Takeaway: If you find yourself the change agent in an established organisation, Grant’s keynote (above) offers some techniques on how to gain traction and create momentum around the opportunities you see. 

Opportunities for tech
in the health sector are limitless

A poignant panel was Think ‘consumers’ instead of ‘patients’, hosted by Eric Peacock, founder of MyHealthTeams.

His guest Terrie Livingston, of biotechnology company Biogen, shared her personal story of being a health practitioner and living with MS. She also talked about the importance of companies such as MyHealthTeams – an online network for chronic condition communities, which enables her to connect with people experiencing similar challenges to herself.

Another of the panel guests talked about the transformation of his healthcare company from a distributor of prescription medication to a customer-focused organisation, reorganising itself around the needs of the individual, not the healthcare system. Citing an example of a specific program that connects with customers to ask how they’re feeling instead of discussing whether they require more medication, he said: “Healthcare costs go down by 11% for those chronic illness just by having a conversation once a month.”

Takeaway: Steve Case, founder of AOL, believes we’re “in a period in which entrepreneurs will vastly transform major ‘real world’ sectors like health, education, transportation, energy, and food – and in the process, change the way we live our daily lives”³. Case believes that this transformation of established organisations (including healthcare) will come from smart partnerships with small, nimble startups helping to accelerate the change.


Monty Hamilton

Monty Hamilton is a former partner in PwC Australia’s Digital Services team.

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