SXSW 2023 – AI gets rational as hype dies down

Else Partner Dave Dunlop visits South by Southwest to find which AI projects are rising above the noise, where climate and tech are converging and what this means for designers.

You’d have done well at this South by Southwest (SXSW) to avoid two things — the talk of Silicon Valley Bank and Artificial Intelligence. Although as designers, there isn’t much we can do about the former, it is clear that after last year’s hype and forewarning about the potential of AI, we’re now seeing its potential realised through proper application.

What are we afraid of?

As we wrestle with the ethics and potential impact of AI, a more practical call to action was put to delegates: embrace it, rather than fear it. Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly’s take on this is that we should treat AI as: an “intern and partner”.

Many of the talks I attended focused on AI in some form and its now clear there will be a significant impact on every industry in the very near future. Future Today Institute CEO Amy Webb, who spoke at the event said, “The internet as we know it is over”, recognising that we’re entering a new phase of AI osmosis she calls “AIsmosis”, where AI systems start interacting with data.

She explained that being able to use assistive computing tech will be like being born rich. And that in the up-skilling for the AI era, it’s not just adults who will need training but also children who will need up-skilling as billions will not be qualified for assistive era jobs. We could be creating a dangerous new digital divide, she warned. And regulation will be a long, way behind.

Webb then went on to outline some positive and negative scenarios, including  the dangers of AI around bias that’s built into its architecture. Everything is readable information for it to learn from and we all know that not all sources on the web are reliable. AI is advancing at an astonishing rate–the first version of Chat-GPT was based on 1.5 bn data sources, the latest is based on 75 bn, but the real question on bias is is around who is training the AI and from what data, much of which isn’t open and transparent currently. Who gets to decide what information is fed in?

Webb warned that the big five tech firms stand to become even more powerful, creating a monopoly in this new era, as large-language models are developed due to the mass of data and processing needed.

Many of the talks were keen to demonstrate the power of these large-language models. Entire business plans were written within 10 seconds, new opportunities in learning and engagement are being created, even a SXSW talk on quantum computing was revealed to be created entirely using AI generators.

Emergent climate tech is on the agenda

Aside from AI, there were many panels and talks about climate crisis at SXSW this year, something that in previous years had seemed absent, which seems odd given the conference’s focus on emerging and future trends. Keynotes included Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert, talking about how Earth is now our only shareholder.

Climate tech investors sat on many of the panels I attended, talking about how resilient the sector is to the overall downturn in tech investing. They discussed the myriad different areas of carbon reduction to meet the net zero targets by 2050. It was exciting for me personally to see the level of investment in this area, especially as at Else we’ve been exploring services to help people navigate ways to reduce their impact on the planet.

One related discussion was about the importance of connecting with the idea you can personally make an impact. With two-thirds of people suffering from climate anxiety and with Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reports hard to understand, there is a burden of education and a lack of knowing who to trust when terms are unregulated.


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A post shared by NASA (@nasa)

Meanwhile in true SXSW contrast we were treated to a new NASA image courtesy of NASA’s James Webb telescope. Its team gave an inspiring account of their involvement in the launch, and set-up of the observatory, which will spend many years ahead exploring the uncharted areas of our cosmos. The images are simply beautiful and have been enhanced by the NASA team through recolouration to emphasise different points of interest within them.

New sense of community

Other talks tackled the practicalities and challenges of remote work. New industries have formed out of changing work patterns from the COVID era, as well as platforms that offer digital social engagement; think Habbo Hotel for work, sponsored by remote work companies and Slack. In contrast, a talk on DAOs revealed how this has been applied digitally and physically to decentralised city living. The aim here is to build network states, rethinking the central city hub as a collection of buildings to something that’s distributed among different communities which thrive on people and culture, such as Kift. I found this really interesting: community forming from two distinct drives — the first being the desire to work from anywhere and the second being the improvement in people’s health and happiness when surrounded by people they admire.

Trusting our guts

Nutritional health was firmly on the agenda this year, with poor diet being the number one risk factor ahead of smoking and high cholesterol for early death. There were good discussions on how diet affects our gut microbiome and conversely how gut health nutrition isn’t yet in mainstream healthcare. The need to reclaim the idea of food as medicine was proposed. There was a great discussion on how far science is going on microbiome, both in pursuit of pro-active healthy-living and how our gut and brain are so intrinsically connected, as well as for treatment of chronic conditions such as cancers and inflammatory diseases.

Zoe in the UK is a health study looking to advance our understanding of how food affects our body. Currently, there are so many behavioural challenges and barriers to rethinking our model for health treatment. But this is an area I’m sure is going flourish as the evidence builds and we become more aware of its importance –which makes it a prime area for design to play its part.

Sci-fi becomes reality

Rounding out with a couple of interesting panel talks on Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI), which included someone who had an embedded brain implant for a clinical study, I came away from SXSW with the feeling that areas of technology which just a few years ago felt like fantasy are already working their way through, in some cases very rapidly, to mainstream application.

You have to let SXSW happen, and I’m sure everyone’s experience of it is different. Mine lasted just under a week and included a trip to Mission Control, watching the Rockets take on the Bulls and a few obligatory BBQ places to boot. This year felt less about the hype and more about how we want to play a part in shaping this new future, which is very much upon us.


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