The annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas brings together some of the world’s most brilliant technology minds. PwC’s Monty Hamilton ventured forth for his fifth event, and shares his key takeaways.

There are no words to describe the sense of renewal and energy one gains after the ‘choose your own adventure’ that is SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. Venturing back for my fifth ‘South-by’, there’s no other event quite like it. Unswayed by commercially biased content, with thousands of sessions spanning government, education, retail, health, computing, entertainment and sport, it is the first event I lock in to my work schedule each year.

Once again I’m left to conclude that no matter how wonderful the technology is, it remains no more than a platform for those wise enough to put it to use to make the world a better place. Here’s five take-outs from my visit to the 2018 event.

Flying, driving, tunnelling:
the next big step in autonomous is upon us

It seems the only level of ambiguity in autonomous transport is whether you’ll be flying over, driving on or perhaps even tunnelling under the road system we know and use today.

Elon Musk believes “by the end of next year, self driving will encompass all forms of driving….that’s self-driving version 2 and it will be 200-300% safer than human controlled vehicles”. He’s probably well placed to comment: Tesla is the market leader for semi-autonomous vehicles and a huge list of folks are waiting to take delivery of their pre-ordered Model 3 in 2018 and beyond.

So what? Imagine you commute between Sydney and Canberra. Today, it’s generally still faster and more productive to fly instead of driving, but with the next wave of autonomous vehicles on the way, you could be more productive, or just relax on the journey. Even if it might take longer, it may be a better transport option. Of course, the game changes when an autonomous car gets you there faster – because it’s safer, talks to other cars around you and can exceed the motorway 100 km/h limit – that has very real implications for airlines, hotels and beyond.

Quantum computing progress
is exponential

In his keynote, American entrepreneur William Hurley (better known as whurley, yes, one word, all lowercase, and you thought geeks weren’t cool?) called out the incredible work happening in universities in quantum computing, including UNSW professor Andrea Morello and Silicon Quantum Computing director professor Michelle Simmons.

So what? “I believe the first financial markets company with a commercial quantum computer will have a major competitive advantage; whether that’s for six months or six years, I have no idea” whurley said. There’s no shortage of investment beyond the education sector with Google, IBM, Intel and start-ups such as Rigetti and IonQ going in big and making incredible progress.

Blockchain
beyond currencies

While there was a major focus on blockchain, and currency names bitcoin, ethereum, litecoin and ripple were some of the most overheard words in Austin, ethereum co-founder, Joseph Lubin’s keynote gave a deeper insight into how the headline grabbing blockchain technology is extending well beyond use as a financial instrument.

“The beauty of this is that it shrinks the role, the dominance and the monetisation, of the intermediary,” Lubin said.1 “Someone could buy a license, receive it instantly and then the artist could get paid instantly.” He was referencing UJO, an open music platform using blockchain technology to create a transparent and decentralised database of rights and rights owners, automating royalty payments using smart contracts and cryptocurrency.

“We are going to be able to squeeze out delays and frictions” in many different industries.

So what? There’s a great deal more to blockchain than bitcoin and currency. At PwC we’re investing to provide greater transparency to consumers about the paddock-to-plate process with food fraud on the rise – enabled by blockchain technology.

Connectivity
underpins everything

“Most web content is consumer driven and it’s video centric. In 2006 video was 12%, the 2023 forecast is 85%, and today, 40% of peak US traffic is from Netflix,” seasoned technology and telecommunications executive Mary Meduski, CEO of TierPoint, said.

But there’s a lot more to connectivity than cables and wires and the proliferation of balloons and satellites. One theme explored by a number of keynotes was brain-to-brain and machine-to-brain interfaces. Elon Musk is reportedly developing implantable brain–computer interfaces with his San Francisco-based Neuralink company.

Another theme of connectivity was demonstrated by Neurable’s Dr Ramses Alcaide. Alcaide’s session ‘The Final Human-Computer Interface, Your Brain’ demonstrated how our brain intent can be used to control a virtual/mixed reality environment.2

So what? What starts as a use case in gaming and entertainment often rapidly enters other commercial scenarios such as operating large scale industrial or robotic equipment. Sure, brain-to-brain communication won’t arrive overnight but as balloons, satellites and wireless technologies accelerate, how will those charging for connectivity compete with those giving it away for free?

Artificial Intelligence –
The moral and ethical challenges

Following the groundswell in 2017 around AI, ethics and morals was the focus this year as well as the arrival of technology assistants and the impending arrival of human-level intelligent machines. Futurist Ray Kurzweil once again reiterated “2029 is the consistent date I have predicted for when an AI will pass a valid Turing test and therefore achieve human levels of intelligence”, adding “AI is really a brain extender, that’s why we use technology in general – to go beyond our limitations”.3

Elon Musk was very concerned about AI’s impact on mankind and called for immediate regulatory intervention. “This is extremely important, I think the danger of AI is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads – by a lot. And nobody would suggest that we allow anyone to just build nuclear warheads if they want – that would be insane. Mark my words, AI is far more dangerous than nukes – far – so why do we have no regulatory oversight?”.4

The ‘democratising AI for individuals and organisations’ panel featured Stanford and Google executive Fei-Fei Li. Li called for diversity in this stage of AI, inviting female high school students in to participate. Li co-founded “AI4ALL” dedicated to cultivating a diverse group of future AI leaders and promoting a diverse humanistic view of the AI field. ?”AI as a technology, needs to be human centric,” Li said. 5

So what? Now that you’ve launched your innovative chatbot and dipped your toes into the world of AI, ask yourself ‘who wrote the rules?’, ‘was your team truly diverse?’, ‘what bias – conscious or unconscious – could we be exposing in the experience we’ve built?’ We must invest our emotional intelligence and do everything possible to avoid programming ‘the machine’ with moral and ethical flaws. At the heart of building a diverse team is the opportunity to build relevant experiences for your diverse customer base.

If you’d like to discuss any of these topics or if you’re thinking of heading to SXSW in 2019 drop me a note.

 

Contributor

Monty Hamilton

Monty Hamilton is a partner in PwC’s Digital Services business.

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