This was the 7th time that I traveled to Austin to experience the center of the (US) tech world. 2011, 13, 15–19 to be precise. As I always tell fresh attendees: it is not so much about the next new app anymore. SXSW got that name in 2007 when Twitter was launched and in 2009 with Foursquare. After that there was never such an impactful launch. You can however see how certain themes emerge. From social media to blockchain to service design and AI. And like last year AI was the most important trend of this year. Last year and also in 2017 it was more the new possibilities and the discovery what AI actually is and what is a possible future. Now it was much more all about the impact on society. Even without super specific examples.
Ethics and inclusiveness were the key themes. It indicates how much SXSW focuses on the society and the impact of technology nowadays, more than the one-off successes (or failures). It is something Bruce Sterling referred to in his closing remarks on Wednesday: we have entered a world that is ruled by the G-maffia, the GAFAM that is dictating our reality. And our reality is changing, so much is clear.
In the panel session that INFO organised together with Philips and UNstudio inclusivity was connected to the smart city, looking into design strategies.
– Design contextually and with equity, letting people make decisions, not just assuming they only want to give opinions
– Good interventions are based on a thorough understanding of the user experience in the eco-system
– All inclusive city processes should include ‘negotiations’ between citizens/users
At SXSW there are always several themes and focus points in parallel. For me the theme I focused on was automation, robotics, relation man-machine and AI. And also what it means for the designer.
There was enough to see and hear about that, as AI was in all other tracks too, it was hard to filter the right sessions even more.
So, before diving a bit more into this, here a TL;DR; a look back in a couple of bullets
- AI as societal impact, triggering societal questions as key to discuss. As we entered a tech-reality ruled by big tech SXSW will be less on startups and more on impact in society
- As soon as AI is ready for use, it stops being AI, it starts being a tool or a machine
- Living with tech needs computational contracts as understanding, and computational design as future of design
- With AI, computational contracts, etc, we will not design, we will be designed, and need to find the right way to cooperate with the machines
- To make technology inclusive we need to focus on the outcomes on a different human level and we need to dare to choose if necessary for slow technology. And to quote Bjarke Ingels: don’t follow the dogma of thinking outside of the box, be obsessed by the restrictions
- Podcasts are the hopeful promise for media
- Scooters (electric steps) are a nice and handy drive but a huge clutter for the sidewalk when you let competition get loose
Social home appliances
There were a number of social robots in the LG house. A few large versions with screen for events, but the most interesting was CLOi, a SocialBot as they call it. This is a handy robot, about the size of a Google Home or Alexa, specially developed for emotional interaction. The design looks a bit like the recently ‘deceased’ Jibo robot.
I saw Jibo for the first time on SXSW, at the time at a presentation by the creator Cynthia Breazeal. It then remained silent for a long time, until last year. Jibo appeared to have been overtaken by the law of the inhibiting lead. The robot was extremely good at displaying human behavior, but not intelligent enough to compete with the Alexa and Google Home. Jibo was also far too expensive.
Interesting how LG follows a similar path in the development of its SocialBot, with the difference that attention is a bit more focused on the eyes than on movements. In the LG house also other automated machines were displayed, such as a beer machine and an ice machine. The SocialBot is not a bone in its own right, but must be seen as an intermediary for household appliances from LG, which of course will all become much more intelligent.
The role of such bots is interesting. I often use the Chinese Nio Nomi car in presentations that has built in a similar interface to shape the contact between functions and occupants.
Relationship between man and machine
A lot of discussion at SXSW is about the relationship between man and machine, our intelligence and AI and the ethical aspects thereof. It is super interesting that Asian companies choose social robotics instead of the more functional way of Amazon or Google Home.
Douglas Rushkoff mentioned the collaboration between robots and non-humans too. Rushkoff has a mission that he calls Team Human; “We don’t need a substitute for real life.” He argues that robots should not be treated as slaves. We must not go back to feudal times, that brings us down as people: “Respect non-human rights.”
It was also discussed in the “Academia and the Rise of Commercial Robotics” panel. We are now on an engineering platform, the next step is to use social science to enable cultural interactions.
Another panel spoke about Active and Passive AI, where passive stands for serviceable AI that you can call to execute an assignment, while Active AI itself takes the initiative. You can deduce from the questions from the audience that people are not completely comfortable with it. In addition to concerns about privacy, there is a great deal of fear that robots and AI will take over the world.
When it comes to applications, it also makes sense to zoom in on ethics. A good example was the last session I attended with Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Wolfram Alpha. This is a computational search engine that is widely used in science and education. Wolfram believes that a new language must be developed, the computational language, and he spoke about computational contracts.
His tool is a smart machine that contains a lot of AI. His story ties in with the discussion about blockchain, so it is not surprising that his talk was called The Future of AI in Blockchain. That title has a high buzzword density, but Wolfram knows what he is talking about. His presentation was therefore not a list of empty words or superficial views. With his tool he showed how we can communicate with machines in a different way.
Wolfram was not the only advocate of computational thinking. John Maeda, also a regular SXSW speaker, commented on this during his Design In Tech update and he also writes a book about this: How To Speak Machine Many stories came along in his story, but an important starting point is his focus on Computational Design, a discipline that he puts alongside Classical Design and Design Thinking.
Maeda also makes clear how design changes if you take the dynamics of computer-driven services (of which AI is part) as a starting point. Where Wolfram concentrates on the new language and functions, Maeda is concerned with the impact of AI on design practice. His report on this goes deeply in depth and contains many examples.
Ethics is a theme that was explicitly discussed during SXSW this year, especially when it comes to AI and robots. Both Johan Maeda and Stephen Anderson pointed out, for example, how the designer’s field of work is changing. Not one artefact is the subject of our work, it extends much further. The underlying system is key. Both the DesignInTech report by Maeda and the Framing model by Anderson are recommended for those who want to know more about this.
How are we going to collaborate with AI? How are we going to understand each other. SXSW is much about dangers and the role of robotization and AI, but also about how we will experience our world under the influence of new forms of intelligence, tools and interfaces. It was noticeable that AI is currently high in the Gartner hypecycle. Certainly, last year it was a lot about AI, but then as a concept. This year the relevance was discovered and AI was visible in new services.
War of Cyberpunk
SXSW is the place where you hear new themes for the first time, or where the themes that matter in the coming years are confirmed. As the closing speaker of the interactive festival, Bruce Sterling summarized the state of affairs with a literary statement entitled “War of Cyperpunk”. Sterling concludes that high-tech is now definitely the dominant factor in society.
This has a number of consequences, but one is that there is no room for startups anymore. Whether this is so certain is the question. What is certain is that fewer “things” were shown at SXSW this year. The most important talks were about major changes. Themes such as computational language (the new language that we must learn to speak) and computational design, reflect the change that is taking place. These are developments that call for what Anderson calls a Design 3.0 with which we will relate differently to the things that we design.
This theme coincides in an interesting way with the developments in robotics. It will be another interesting year!