Challenging intelligence at SXSW 2017

Everyone you ask what stands out at this year’s SXSW festival will answer the ubiquitous AI. Our industry is always looking for new hope, technologies that can create new dynamics, new business, new money. AI is the holy grail now and on top of the SXSW hype-cycle. This is not definitely not in sync with the general hype-cycle. SXSW is the thermometer for what will happen the year following the conference. It is like a fashion runway showing the collections of next summer and winter.

But it is not for nothing. The statement that AI could be the new electricity of Andrew Ng is interesting:

Just as electricity transformed many industries roughly 100 years ago, AI will also now change nearly every major industry — healthcare, transportation, entertainment, manufacturing — enriching the lives of countless people. I am more excited than ever about where AI can take us.

This is what you felt at SXSW, this excitement. I was able to follow a couple interesting panels that touched different aspect. From a panel looking how to relate to the machines from a designer’s perspective, to the experiences of a long time smart app as Pandora. Interesting to see how IBM Watson is becoming a service for intelligent conversations. It is often said that good AI is just possible for the big players. That is certainly not the case. By smart using tooling and own recipes you can create on a smaller scale very relevant services. a16z had a nice podcast on this product edge to machine learning last week too.

The question was raised (panel); how will human intelligence compare to artificial intelligence? Will atoms be our next playing field, the reproductive technology of the future… Bryan Johnson from Kernel believes we will opt in or out of an enhanced evolution. He believes AI has left the station and is unstoppable. We need a new narrative for the human race.

This tension how human culture vs AI culture will play out was a recurring topic. Bruce Sterling addressed it also in the closing speech. AI is not human, has no identity, and has different interests as we have. They will make first humans redundant and than themselves.

Last year the relation with AI and bots was mostly functional, how it can be a tool for us. And the conversations we had were no more than framed instructions. This year the relation man-machine is the key element. Or better: mankind-machine. The development with selfdriving cars is still a poster child. It shifts influence the sight of our cities.

George Hotz was back at SXSW. He is the type of tech entrepreneur a lot of SXSW visitors love for his almost naive optimism in creating his own context for success. His semi-open source self-driving software is his way to accelerate access to self-driving. Interesting in his approach is that he makes the self-driving smarter by letting the machine use the tools that are made for us. Waze as input for his automation.

Not at SXSW but very relevant in this, is a new project by James Bridle on self-driving cars. From an interview:

Self-driving cars bring together a bunch of really interesting technologies — such as machine vision and intelligence — with crucial social issues such as the atomization and changing nature of labor, the shift of power to corporate elites and Silicon Valley, and the quasi-religious faith in computation as the only framework for the production of truth — and hence, ethics and social justice.

His research to understand has a different quest than that of Hotz, that is a classical Valley approach; become dominator by opening up. Bridle is directly referencing to the mankind-machine dilemma.

Back to one of the first panels on the relation between human and machine in designing our products. Pip Mothersill researches at MIT how AI would model emotions in the shape of products. The EmotionModeller is an interesting tool for that. The catch is that you need to add glitch to create things with real emotions.

It is also what Pandora learned from their years of experience in developing a smart music adviser. You need to introduce risky to keep people interested, and also make it possible for a system to learn from human behaviour. Too many WTF moments creating distrust in the system though. That will be the balancing act for embedding AI in our daily life the coming years.

Presentation by Oscar Celma of Pandora