It’s been five days in Austin with miles of queues, not enough coffee and many, many mentions of AI. Here, before the dust has settled, are a selection of favourite memories gulped from the information firehose that was SXSW 2017.
1. Forget the Turing test, AI should face the comic book test to see how ‘human’ it is
AI was the topic of the conference this year, with sessions covering everything from AI for homes to IBM's machine learning demos, but it fell to Ray Kurzweil – the godfather of futurism to demonstrate in the most elegant way the limitations that AI still faces.
His point: that the ability to read comics has yet to be cracked. It’s all about inference, says Kurzweil, the fact that our human brains are incredibly well adapted to make connections – bring together disparate concepts to form a new idea. It’s the essence of humanity, innovation, and progress.
When you read a comic the human brain knits together panels to create a mental ‘film' – leaping from one panel to the next. An example: a panel showing dog running towards man, followed by a panel of a man lying on floor implies that the dog knocked over the man. AI struggles to make that mental leap. For now.
Of course they’ll get there, but it will take sustained machine learning in the form of AI ‘reading loads of human stories’, says Kurzweil. He expects this to be sometime around 2029, a number that he hasn’t changed since he first made it in 1999. Others have disagreed but then as he wryly observed: "my prediction is getting closer to the consensus view, but not because I am changing my view"
2. DARPA is working on brain tech that will help us learn quicker
On the subject of learning, Douglas Weber from DARPA revealed that the agency is working on ways in which they can augment brain power by tapping into the nervous system and running targeted electrical stimuli across it. The result: supercharging the speed at which we can learn new tasks. Want to sound extra smart at your next dinner party? Namecheck the program – it’s called the Targeted Neuroplasticity Training program, or TNT for short.
This is just one example of how bioelectronic medicine is blurring the boundaries of healthcare, engineering and computer science - as the technology becomes more mainstream, expect to see big pharma companies behaving like materials engineers, technology companies hacking the human body. Wearables are very much passé, the future is injectables!
3. Every city car has on average 6 parking spaces allocated to it
Hard to imagine when you’re actually looking for parking, but this astonishing data point from a session focused on democratizing the mobility ecosystem highlighted the tremendous inefficiency in city space usage that our current mobility infrastructure has created.
It points to huge opportunities in how we plan and use shared space in our cities when mobility is increasingly served by rideshare schemes or self-driving cars.
4. Living in a dumpster may be the model for the future of housing
Jeff Wilson calls himself an expert in living in interesting spaces, one of which was a dumpster that he lived in for a year as part of his goal to ‘test the smaller limits of square footage.’
The result: Kasita, likely the first start-up to be launched from a dumpster, centred on a small, efficient, beautifully-designed home that is conceived not as a built structure but as an integrated product.
Into this is poured heaps of smart technology – from dynamic glass that turns windows into walls, to a pre-installed AI system. You can quote the size in square footage (352) but Jeff prefers to benchmark it against SDUs – Standard Dumpster Units.
5. Snapchat lenses might help you get your next job
In amongst the reliably bonkers collection of start-ups, prototypes and inventions in the Japanese trade show stand was TeleBeauty, an app that offers augmented video calling, using facial overlays inspired by Snapchat lenses. The twist: it maps make-up onto your face to ensure you look your best in a job interview.
As much as I enjoyed seeing myself with impressively realistic rouge and guyliner (you can adjust the amount to suit your mood), what this really highlights is the way that augmented reality will start to be used in mainstream applications. It also raises questions about the fluidity of identity in a digital/physical world. If you can add make-up what else might you do? Look younger? Look older? Change your accent? How can we really be sure who it is we are really talking to?.
6. Blockchain could humanize the internet
One in five people on earth are unable to prove their own identity. This presents a challenge for everything from human trafficking, to enabling property ownership and economic growth. For Monique Morrow (Chief Technology Strategist at Cisco), blockchain could the big innovation that can solve this - enabling single, verifiable identity records that can hold a myriad of information. One immediate use case would be to enabling refugees for example to have verifiable records of their qualifications, their finances, their medical records, and more.
It’s a vision of a future that is already a reality in Estonia, where the entire identity system has already been built on blockchain. This could be the proving ground for a new system of identity, which could in turn could herald a shift in ownership of personal data. It’s not a given, but it’s an exciting prospect.
7. VR experimentation is focusing on the experience – it’s more fun together!
If VR featured less than last year, that’s probably a good reflection of the fact that it's maturing as a technology, with the focus shifting to real world use cases.
Two of the better demos in town were in Sony’s Wow Factory. A four-person collaborative game saw groups with Vive headsets (connected to backpacks so no trailing wires) solving challenges together. It showed how virtual worlds could become genuine collaboration spaces – whether for socializing, sharing concepts or playing games.
On the other side of the hall, Tetsuya Mizuguchi demonstrated his haptic synaesthesia suit, designed to be worn while playing the wildly popular Rez Infinite on Playstation VR. Synesthesia is the idea that one might ‘see’ music or ‘feel’ colours. The game itself is a visual feast of colours, shapes and generative techno soundtrack, add to that the specially designed synesthesia suit with 20 haptic and light actuators, and connected to 8 light and sound seats in the audience and you have yourself a VR game that bridges to the real world in an almost concert-like experience.
8. Pokemon Go can be a force for social good
If the thought of virtual worlds fills you with dread, then John Hanke, co-founder of Niantic, the company behind Pokemon Go made an impassioned case for using augmented reality as a tool for getting people ‘out of their cocoons’, and having ‘adventures on foot’ (the raison d’etre of Niantic).
Case in point – by specifically targeting locations within the Tsunami-affected areas in Japan, the game attracted 100k people to the area, generating $20m economic impact.
It's a model that the group is building on as it seeks to partner with city organisations in an attempt to increase usage and access of pubic spaces.
So what do you think? Were you at SXSW? What did I miss? And what would you have featured? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.