Robots in a panel discussion? That’s just an ordinary day at SXSW

Once a year, an ordinary American city transforms into the world’s central hub of music, film, and interactive media. For ten days, people from all over the globe come together at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. SXSW is the cutting edge of culture and technology.

As we love being ahead of the curve, two of our frogs flew off to Austin to get a glimpse of the future. Let’s ask Ben whether he spotted any exciting new trends at SXSW.

Austin, Texas. The home of South by Southwest.

Austin, Texas. The home of South by Southwest.

Hi Ben! What does a typical day at SXSW look like?

During the conference, there are ‘sessions’ about the latest technologies all over the city. These events can be anything from presentations, panel discussions, and interviews to live demos. We saw a lot of interesting speakers, and most sessions had an audience Q&A afterward.

There’s enough time to see about six sessions per day. During lunch, people get together and discuss what they’ve seen so far. And at the end of the day, visitors from many different disciplines meet each other over dinner and drinks.

How would you describe the atmosphere?

Austin was full of energy. A good vibe. I saw so many different crowds there: startup folks, scientists, people from agencies, developers, creatives… The best thing is that every day, you hear things that make you go ‘WOW!’ That’s incredibly inspiring. I’m leaving Texas with a lot of enthusiasm.

Some of the sessions were packed!

You’ve been to SXSW before. How does this year compare to previous editions?

This is my third time at South by Southwest. Every year, there seems to be a central theme. This time, it was Artificial Intelligence that grabbed all attention. Almost everything appeared to be about AI: there were chatbots, voice recognition, machine learning, and even the interpretation of human emotions.

Of course, AI was already up and coming last year. But this time, we saw much more examples of AI applied in the real world. Artificial intelligence is accelerating at an incredible pace.

What was the most impressive thing you saw at the festival?

Two Japanese robots joined in on a panel discussion with humans! Everyone was amazed at how good they were at having a decent conversation. They had a very natural way of responding to the humans. I think that’s a crucial part of getting the most out of artificial intelligence. Literally giving a face to AI will make the interaction between humans and machines so much better.

Robots are becoming more and more human

Robots are becoming more and more human

Anything else you wanna share?

There’s much more to these developments than just the technology. Plenty of sessions discussed the implications of AI for society. You know how some people are pessimistic, believing that bots will steal our jobs or take over the world? I don’t buy that. Of course, some jobs will disappear, but AI will create opportunities for new jobs at the same time.

That’s why we shouldn’t look at AI as something dangerous. Instead, we should see it as an extension of ourselves. Ultimately, it’s a tool that we can use to improve our lives. Just look at traffic or health care. There are still so many unnecessary deaths caused by human error. AI could prevent those!

The challenge is to make sure that we use intelligent machines in the right way. Everything we do today will impact how useful AI can be in the future. That’s why next year’s SXSW should be even more exciting.

Stijn Out
17 March 2017