plan to go to SXSW it is also accepting that maxim that there is no choice without a waiver. Simultaneous activities and kilometric queues make us leave behind panels of brands, specialists and subjects that we are interested in in the biggest event of the creative and innovation industry in the world. For newbies (or for those who have been, like me) the FOMO syndrome attacks, that fear of missing something: did I choose to watch those who presented the trends that will, in fact, succeed?
I returned to Austin in 2023, seven years after my in-person debut, in 2016. I remember being extremely anxious, imagining that I would hear extraordinary things. At the time, virtual reality was the hot topic. You walked around the city and there was VR everywhere, on all the panels and company exhibits. Years passed and this technology did not gain scale. Remember Google Glass? We don’t see anyone walking around with virtual reality glasses (at least not until today, if one day it works, don’t blame me, it’s been 8 years, I have the right, go…). Another topic at the time was IoT (the internet of things). More than devices, we would have chips all over the body (I’m not saying that one day, maybe, it will be reality, but, again, 8 years later…)
Last year, the hit was the metaverse, which also (yet) didn’t take off the way it was hyped.
Nearing the end of this year’s SXSW marathon, I can safely say that, regardless of the choices I made, the motto this time is not a projection of the future, but a questioning of today’s reality: after all, what is the role of humans in the world that is being, more and more quickly, occupied by intelligent machines?
From autonomous cars to education solutions, there was no technology more debated at SXSW 2023 than Artificial Intelligence (AI), which emerged in the 1950s (see how long it takes…) and which, now, for the first time, arrives close to our intellect. Which may seem counterintuitive, since this is not even a new trend, and the ubiquity of the theme on the panels is an indication that after years of projecting a future in which we humans would explore the digital environment with avatars, using accessories technologies, we are now dealing with a much less comfortable present and for which we have not prepared ourselves that much. Artificial Intelligence is already capable of replacing human intelligence in several situations right here, in real life. And now?
In advertising, I started my career as a copywriter. I confess that I’m still scared to see up close what the machines already know how to do. But, participating in the panels, it was also easy to see that, before being a threat, Artificial Intelligence is an ally in the search for efficiency. You can ask ChatGPT, the generative AI tool that was mentioned in almost every SXSW panel, and it also reassures you: AI can even do what you do, but with limitations and under the mediation of other people. What’s more, there are abilities that only humans have. That is, if you are worried about losing your job, maybe you are failing to look at what really matters.
From futures expert Amy Webb, who launched the 2023 edition of her Tech Trends Report at the event, to Greg Brockman, president of OpenAI, the company that created ChatGPT as well as DALL-E, the tool that creates original images from of commands, the debate turned to the productivity gains that Artificial Intelligence can bring – and already brings – to several businesses. They made speeches based on real cases, from practical and successful applications of technology in various segments. However, the residual message of the panels is that, at the end of the day, they still don’t replace what matters most: the human capacity to generate real emotional connections.
At its panel at SXSW, Disney presented its new robot with fluffy ears, learning to skate and responding to stimuli from the audience present. It was a success. In our routine, we have fun with interactions with Alexa, tell a joke to ChatGPT. But when it comes to genuine connection, forget it. There is none for any of them.
And that’s not me talking. At MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there is research on how the advancement of Artificial Intelligence tools can lead us to believe that machines are capable of feeling emotions, reacting from them. Neuroscience, however, shows us that everything is just a projection that humans make about these tools, as Professor Sherry Turkle explains. A complex talk, but one that reinforces what I heard at SXSW about the implications of AI.
I am a technology enthusiast (a learner, but an enthusiast) and how it impacts social relationships. I read, study, go after information. But, with all due respect to those who have already felt safe speculating futures at SXSW, it seems to me that the rule is to try to show us some direction in relation to this topic, even without having the compass – I don’t dare to place any bets.
I prefer to continue with a reflection on the unpredictable: what remains for us humans is to be more and more human (but keep technology close, even so).
- Hugo Rodrigues is chairman of WMcCann