SXSW 2018: Things We’re Still Thinking About

SXSW has come to a close, and just like every year, we’ve returned to our offices with heads spinning full on new ideas and fascinating perspectives. After several long days enjoying talks, meetups, lounges and mingling, we’ve compiled some of our top-of-mind thoughts after the conference.

There’s a movement to change bias.

Specifically within AI and Data, there was a palpable feeling of “making change for the better” felt across most sessions. Certain sessions took a direct hit against the overt issue of racial and gender bias, drilling in on commonly used data sets that are stacked with bias, such as photo recognition, police databases, and conversational bots. Other speakers were determined to preach about team diversity and the urgent need for companies to hire diverse sets of people—this is the only way to create, iterate, test and evolve platforms for today’s consumers and to truly change bias in AI and Machine Learning. There’s a real opportunity at hand to build more inclusive and empathetic product, and the time is now.

TLDR: More women, people of color, and people with disabilities must be recruited, hired and solicited to contribute to jobs and roles that have the power to influence data, platforms, and products.

We bangin’, but for the right reasons?

While the lines for Google House were long, and the interactions were interesting, have they solved for lack of consumer awareness? Upon entering the House, the first encounter of the home was on the front lawn where a low-rider was outfitted with Google Home tech. On voice command, it’s hydraulics would twist and turn and balance on three wheels, complete with heavy beats to keep the good times rollin’. Moving to the kitchen, Google Home would make Patron Margaritas on voice command, feed your pets when you forget, change TV channels, lower the shades in your bedroom (aka hangover room) and even tell a robot to rearrange your sock drawer. Lots of fun to experience, sure, but does anyone actually have a beer vending machine in their living room? When 25% of Google customers aren’t sure what they would use a Home device for, the SXSW Google [Fun] House went a long way to help users understand the product, its uses, and perhaps spread the word.

Next in AI: Context

AI is not a trend. Today’s data is robust, the systems have been built and we’re at the point where we have enough to offer products that move beyond peeking people’s interest. In order for AI to take the next step and seamlessly work its way into more users lives, machines need to first learn context. New interfaces will need to understand where a user is and what they’re doing in order to be effective. For instance, a 36 year old white woman might listen to Icelandic rock music every day on the way to work while along in her car, but that’s NOT who she is inside her workspace, in front of her boss. How do machines account for these vastly different personas even though it’s the same user? A very exciting time for designers and product developers to be working through these types of situations.

AI + Empathy is on the rise

Empathy has moved from a marketing buzzword to fully embraced by technologists. Designing and making products that account for empathy was upheld by all the big brands at SXSW—Google, Mercedes Benz, Microsoft, and the list goes on. As Danielle Krettek from Google stated, “AI is not about empathy, rather it is about the Empathic Leap, how it helps us to connect to a feeling or insight we haven’t yet had, but made possible by a machine.” For many, AI is still new territory, but she left us with a quote from Joseph Campbell: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

Art and tech are blending more than we realize

It’s no secret that the worlds of technology and design are beginning to cross over, but as author Walter Isaacson’s pointed out in his talk “Hacking da Vinci,” this convergence goes beyond practice into mindset. Isaacson drew parallels between Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs, both of whom bridged the gap between humanities and technology; da Vinci embodied the same “think different” ethos that Jobs so admired and strived to live out. For both, a relentless pursuit of knowledge was the driving force for all pursuits. It’s safe to say that in today’s landscape, the mentality of artists and technologist should influence each other equally in order to build empathy and fine-tune products in a way the pushes the boundaries of what is already known. The art and tech cup runneth over.

Told you so…

Hate to say it, but as we previously covered, we were skeptical that the Fairmont would be open on time. In fact, they did not have rooms finished, causing a last minute scramble for hundreds/thousands of attendees to find accommodations. Despite the fiasco, the lobby, conference rooms and apparently suites did open with large rooms, soft chairs, and a Las Vegas-type scented air being pumped into each room. The Hyatt Regency across the bridge was also really nice, and offered this beautiful view. Thanks for asking.


Until next year, Austin. #SXSW2019