What happens when the world’s largest gathering of digital professionals meet to talk cutting-edge tech and creativity? PwC Partner Monty Hamilton reports from a week on the ground at SXSW 2019.

There’s a growing sense that it’s time for technology to play a much more meaningful role in addressing societal challenges and demonstrate far greater respect for the data which consumers and citizens share in exchange for the service itself.

Back for my seventh instalment of South by Southwest (SXSW), a smattering of politics, societal change, trust and fear of singularity once again fueled ‘geek week’, in which thousands of sessions pack the agenda for ten hours a day, taking over the whole of downtown Austin, Texas.

SXSW is the one event I lock in to my schedule each year. As daunting as its scale is, I love the purity of an event that takes place with little to no vendor skew, and where content is largely voted for by past and future attendees. The 2019 instalment once again exceeded expectations.

Here are my ‘big five’ takeaways from SXSW Interactive:

The trust deficit
is real

Gone are the days of hyper-growth in the ‘heads of state’ social networks. There’s an increasing undertone of ‘switching off’, of locking down privacy settings, and a general sentiment around the conference that it’s time for big tech to start playing nicely. But is that enough?

In days leading up to SXSW, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, unveiled A privacy-focused vision for social networking.1 He leaves no ambiguity in his belief that “the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever.”

The headline doubter is Zuckerberg’s former mentor and investor Roger McNamee who said that, without addressing the issue of data collection for advertising, “we can look at this announcement as being largely about the performance of public relations rather than addressing the fundamental issues at Facebook.”2

In her fireside conversation with Time Magazine editor-at-large Anand Giridharadas, US Senator Elizabeth Warren made the bold call for big tech to be broken up. “We want to keep that marketplace competitive and not let a giant who has an incredible competitive advantage snuff that out.”3

So what?

As I tell my clients repeatedly, there’s a simple question to answer when it comes to customer and citizen data: Is the primary reason for collecting and leveraging data to deliver customer or citizen value?

Unless the answer is an unambiguous ‘yes’, you’re headed in the wrong direction. Of course, there are plenty of examples of mutual value exchange, but posing the primary purpose question can solve many problems ahead of time.

We don’t talk

Conversational commerce has arrived. We’re talking to machines in our homes and those interactions are moving from the mundane tasks of weather forecasts and turning on lights to more valuable interactions. We’re also running large chunks of our social lives – family and friends – from within group messaging chats.

In his keynote RIP Websites, The end is nigh4 Alex Spinelli, the CTO of LivePerson and former global head of Amazon’s Alexa operating system, cited the first wave of chat as largely a replacement for a telephone interaction with a service provider, with a defined ‘start and finish’.

He went on to demonstrate the ability for organisations to converse with customers across a range of messaging platforms – wherever their customers choose to be at any given time, not just those the brand has a presence on or provides itself.

Alex left us with three fairly provocative takeaways:

  1. Stop working on your website, they don’t work
  2. Learn about AI and machine learning
  3. Conversation design is the new web design

So what?

Alex is right; call centres can incite fear and frustration in many of us. While I’m not sure we’re ready to throw away the website or app just yet, the opportunity to complement person-to-screen interactions with meaningful conversation (with people or machines) has arrived and many brands are jumping on board to deliver their customers an improved and differentiated experience.

Is it time
for a digital detox?

After over a decade of smartphones and apps, persuasive design – the discipline of using behavioural insights to influence product design – is having a profound impact on attention spans, productivity and work/life balance.

Author Brian Solis, who has written seven books helping organisations and individuals adapt to the radical impact of digitisation, shared his personal story of becoming increasingly error-prone and distracted, and the impact that hyperconnectivity was having on his relationship and role as a father.

Solis’s latest book, Lifescale: How to Live a More Creative, Productive, and Happy Life acknowledges the impossibility of switching off permanently, but offers techniques (‘productivity hacks’, as he calls them) for unlocking ‘lifescale’.

So what?

As a digital evangelist, Solis is one of the last people I would expect to write this book. In a world of increasing digital distractions, there is a need to be creative and innovative without turning off our technology. Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves how pervasive technology has become in our lives and whether we need to adjust our approach?

Self-driving cars and trucks
have already arrived

Closer to our own garages, Self-Driving Cars: The Future is When? featured journalist Malcolm Gladwell and Chris Urmson, CEO of driverless car software company Aurora, having quite a debate on whether consumers actually wanted the technology.

“I’m not sure I am excited […] Do I want it? No, I actually really like driving,” said Gladwell. “The right way for this technology to come to life is as a transport method for people in big cities,” said Urmson.

Meanwhile, two prominent self-driving trucking brands, Waymo and TuSimple, featured on industry transport veteran Richard Bishop’s panel Sharing the Road with Driverless Trucks: Really?.5 Vijaysai Patnaik, Product Lead at Waymo and Chuck Price, Chief Product Officer at TuSimple shared deep insights in how their respective technologies are bringing self-driving trucks onto the roads of Arizona and beyond.

Patnaik explained how they’re leveraging parent company Alphabet’s advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning to recognise objects on the road up to 30% faster with 8% more accuracy.

With the focus on Alphabet’s Waymo, TuSimple may have remained under the radar until now. However with over 400 employees housed in headquarters in the US and China, and with plans to have 50 commercial trucks on the road by June, TuSimple is a worthy addition to the rapidly growing watchlist of players in the self-driving arena.

So what?

Self-driving vehicles might be envisioned as anything from a driver who intervenes selectively, to a futuristic pod without a steering wheel. The reality is, self-driving cars and trucks have arrived. With the assistance of AI and machine learning, safety and overall quality uplift will be exponential.

Whether you’re a transport fleet operator or navigating the freeway for your daily commute, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll experience self-driving transport. Still in doubt? Mining company Rio Tinto announced last year it has moved more than one billion tonnes of material with its autonomous fleet, 100% injury free.6

The promise of AI
(and the dangers)

It’s no surprise that for the last five years AI and machine learning have dominated the SXSW agenda. The difference is this time, any reference to AI or machine learning almost always referenced the human impact.

“AI is like medicine – it can be a life-changer for those who need it, but everyone else should know better than to snack on it out of boredom,” said Cassie Kozyrkov, Google’s Chief Decision Scientist, in her keynote How to Build a Brighter AI Future.7

A real highlight for me, Kozyrkov gave a superb insight into the reality of AI and how to manage some of the misperceptions. She debunked the myth that human-like identities dominate AI and that in fact its overwhelming uses today are actually “boring but useful”. “Tools are all about making us better than human, and AI is just yet another tool,” she said. “AI is about automating the ineffable.”

Immediately following SXSW, Stanford University announced the creation of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI). With a notable advisory council of Silicon Valley leaders that includes former Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and former Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer, the institute will face head-first into the ethical challenges of AI. Its vision is to guide AI so that it’s “collaborative, augmentative, and enhancing to human productivity and quality of life.”8

So what?

The hype surrounding AI and machine learning has been at fever pitch for sometime. However, the reality is that organisations might be missing some of the most obvious applications to put the machine to work in sensible, ethical ways that could create value for citizen, customer and organisation.

There’s never been a better, faster or cheaper way to leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning. Just don’t forget: if you’re going to play, play nicely.

Did you attend SXSW 2019? What were your takeaways and key themes? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment in the comments tab.



Monty Hamilton

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

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