Genomics could cure cancer and being vulnerable is good – what SXSW taught me

Else creative director and partner Dave Dunlop reports back from Texas tech-fest SXSW, we he was wowed by genomics research and learned the power of meditation.

One thing is true of the Texas tech conference SXSW – you can’t take it all in. Key themes over five packed days spanned connected cars, robotics, precision health care and fintech.

After stopping at Torchy’s Taco’s on his way into Austin, President Barack Obama dropped in for a chat (see film above). He delivered a call to arms for the tech community to help government develop ideas, platforms and approaches to solve the big problems – although also focused on issues around privacy and security.

Genomics will be “bigger than the internet”

Sanjay Patil of MDLive and former Apple chief executive John Sculley provided a fascinating insight into precision medicine, healthcare on demand and the quantified self.

The jaw-drop moment came when the pair started discussing genomics. Sculley claimed that genomics and precision medicine “will have far bigger impact on humanity than the Internet”.

The technology – he claims – will help solve issues about how we feed populations, how people can have the best possible lifestyle and how we treat people for cancers.

CRISPR CAS9 (see above) is a method of genome editing – essentially snipping DNA and modifying the source code of an organism.

At University California Irvine, researchers took malaria out of 94% of mosquitos with a snip of DNA. Genome editing – the speakers said – has the potential to cure 85% of cancers within five years and to cure people with stage four lung cancer in a matter of weeks.

Leila Takayama of Google X and Wendy Ju from Stanford University joined a panel to discuss the evolution of robots and how adopting human characteristics such as the acceptance of failure and saying sorry can a robot appear smarter to humans.

This thinking led to an experiment looking at interaction from the perspective of a robot trash can (see above).

The pair discussed the new Amazon Echo – a home assistant comparable to Siri which takes on tasks we don’t enjoy. From writing shopping lists to turning on the lights. Echo is always on. But this then introduces a privacy issue with products that are largely invisible. Is it eavesdropping?

Strength in vulnerability

US academic Brené Brown gave an interesting presentation about being brave and how we mistake vulnerability as being a weakness. “Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage” – she says.

She suggests that when you stop caring what people think, you lose why you do the work in the first place. The human brain loves the pattern of narratives – when something happens the brain asks for a story, which we are then chemically rewarded for. By writing down how we feel, we can show greater resilience which helps us to grasp the facts of what has happened.

AI, AR and VR were (unsurprisingly) big on the agenda this year. Hardware is advancing fast, meaning that designers need to think in more dimensions about how we interact.

The power of meditation

SXSW Interactive was finished off nicely by Andy Puddicombe of Headspace. He spent years training as a Buddhist monk in Tibet, practicing meditation before returning and launching mindfulness app Headspace.

A highlight was when he got thousands of people in the Austin Convention Centre to meditate together.

I think the last few days of listening and learning may have got the better of me. I woke up some five or so minutes later feeling quite relaxed.


Dave Dunlop is creative director and partner at Else.

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