BigAI, the new promise of SXSW 2016

This edition of SXSW was a bit different for me compared to the three before. I did a workshop in the program for a starter. That meant that I had to prepare stuff together with the team (René and Won), so I missed listening to talks on Monday. I also had some deadlines. All and all I have the feeling I saw less talks this edition.

Still there were enough interesting content and insights. Or reflections on things you are busy with yourself, that was mainly the case. But before diving into that part, a couple of general things I noticed.

I think I discovered last year for the first time the power of the tradeshow. Now again, lots of inspiration could be found there. Too bad I did not do a full round, but I did visit SXCreate in Palm Event Center the first day and that was very interesting. For the feel, but also for a couple of interesting projects such as the the Parihug. A bear with haptic sensors and actuators that can transport the hugs over a distance. This is exactly what our workshop was about; social mediated touch. It was good to hear Dan Steingart from Princeton University claiming that haptics, notifications are the killer function for wearables. Not from yourself but on a distance.
More on that topic in a separate post.

Also on SXCreate was the production version of Jibo. That is assistent for you home like for instance Amazon Echo is, but is has some emotional interactions build in and also uses voice and face recognition. It worked very well in being a nice companion. And it is an platform with an SDK where you can create your own services using the communications tools that are provided. Could be very powerful.

It was one of the questions I had before SXSW; are we going to see the product as a platform for software as an important trend? This was not so ubiquitous present. In one talk of Brady Forrest on the hardware startup it was clearly touched. And in one of the better fashion panels you see that this is important approach for companies like VF (ao Vans, Northface, Timberland). I expect this will be something to expect for the next year to become bigger. As one of the speakers in the conversational UI panel predicts: In 10 years we do not carry a mobile phone. Access the internet will be via the conversation with the services.

It is a natural successor of the big trend this year: AI (artificial intelligence) and robots. Especially the AI was everywhere. It is clearly a new driving force for other areas. From media to products, in the conversational UI, also a hot topic. And as thing on its own with the bots of course. A room on the secrets of machine learning was stuffed with design oriented people.

Talks on robots where also numerous. I attended a couple. One of the most focused one had an interesting mix of people from someone that make robotised help in shops, another from Google(x) and a professor that researched the behaviour of people towards robots. Concluding that the design of the communication of intentions by a robot is very important for the acceptance and usefulness. A robot that cannot open the door but communicates it’s helplessness is much more accepted. She worked with Pixar to model the behaviour.
Julia Hu from Lark called it the concept of seamless emergence. The moment you give too much freedom to give answers, the bots become dumm. When designing for conversational UIs you need to control the environment.
We see robots as servants or even slaves. We need to take that into account when designing the interaction with them. An AI can outperform a human advice when the reasoning behind a decision is added.

The general conclusion on AI and robots is that will be very tasked based aassistantsthat are part of sets of services. An AI is very good in repetitive tasks, but also very useful for tasks that we as humans are likely to become blurred by our own experiences. For instance with brainstorming to trigger new routes.
We will have AIs all around and we will give them a place in our life. As we already have a feeling with the teasing of the robot dogs so will we have the robots in our lives.

Chris Messina: compare how children now use the touch screen and expect all screen to be touch. The next generation will do that with conversation with things.

So you can say that the AI and the execution of it is the key trend from SXSW. It is as Michiel Berger said, for the first time in a decade, since the rise of networked systems and social media, that we have a trend that is influencing all the things around us. That is the value of SXSW for me, grab the energy of the things that matter for the coming year or so.
And I cannot agree more with Kris Hammond from Narrative Science in the first panel on Friday: The AI should be designed by designers not (only) engineers optimising existing processes.

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Iskander Smit is an innovation director at tech and innovation agency INFO, visiting professor at the Delft University of Technology coordinating Cities of Things Delft Design Lab, and chairman and organizer of ThingsCon Netherlands.

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