Designing the Future We Want — Tech Trends from #SXSW2018

Janaki Mythily Kumar
Experience Matters
Published in
8 min readApr 13, 2018


The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed

— William Gibson

At the SXSW 2018 Interactive conference, it certainly felt like the future is already here. Exploring the hallways, speaking to other attendees, and digging into the vast lineup of session topics spurred a reflection of past key trends, societal impacts of current tech trends, and what we can do now to design the future we want.

Looking Back

For the past 3 years, John Maeda, Head of Design at Automattic, Advisor at Kleiner Perkins, and former head of Rhode Island School of Design, publishes an annual Design in Tech report that summarizes his observations about key trends in design, technology, and business.

John Maeda presented at SXSW to a packed audience. Here are my key takeaways from his Design in Tech Report 2018:

Design is going global

Design in technology is evolving rapidly and spreading beyond Silicon Valley. China is leading in designing experiences, while India and Latin America are also advancing in design thinking and computational design.

Design tools are evolving

Design tools and systems are changing with machine intelligence. AI has gone to Art school and its grades are improving. Now, it is increasingly difficult to discern a real photo or video from a fake one.

Design beyond screens

Custom fabrication is changing manufacturing and natural language recognition is changing the norms of experience. Speed is a key design attribute.

Design for inclusion

AI is not good at inclusive design, because we are not either. However, John makes the case that inclusion = INCLU$ION, since inclusive design expands the total addressable market of any product or service.

Looking forward

Amy Webb, quantitative futurist, Professor of Strategic Foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business, and founder of Future Today Institute, examined 225 emerging tech trends across 20 industry sectors and presented her technology trend predictions for 2018 and beyond.

She presented her findings in 3 trend clusters:

  • 2018 is the beginning of the end of smartphones
  • AI is already here, it did not show up as expected
  • Biology is the most important technology platform of the 21st century

#1: 2018 is the beginning of the end of smartphones

Amy predicts that emerging technologies such as natural user interface, augmented + mixed reality, generative algorithms, digital assistants, face prints, and voiceprints will mature and mark the beginning of the end of smart phones, as we know them. As digital assistants become ubiquitous, conversational or non-visual interfaces will become more prevalent.

Amy also predicts that 50% of people living in industrialized nations who interact with computers will use voice by 2021. This prediction is based on technology advances made in 3 areas — machine reading comprehension, voiceprints, and faceprints.

Machine Reading Comprehension

Machine reading comprehension (MRC) is the ability of computers to read and comprehend unstructured information, like reading and responding accurately to customer queries or summarizing news articles. This ability is improving, and in some studies, computers have surpassed humans. MRC lays the groundwork for our future conversations with machines.


Voiceprints is an emerging trend. Your unique voiceprint divulges your health, age, emotional state, and the size of the room you’re in, the materials the walls are made of, how many people are in the room, fluctuations in the local electrical grid, and where you are located, all based on your voice. As such, conversations with digital assistants will replace passwords.


Our faces are unique. The capillaries underneath our skin are unique as well. Therefore, a person’s faceprint can be a reliable digital recorded representation of a person’s identity similar to the fingerprint.

There are several examples of work combining generative AI technology with faceprints. A university in Germany is working on technology that uses infrared to identify faceprints, and can therefore recognize people in the dark! NEC is working on technology which makes 2D faces to 3D, which can transform a photo into a 3D rendering proving that AI can extrapolate the shape of a face from a single image. Further, MIT is working on creating a video from a still image. Using AI they can “guess” missing information from an image and create a video (that never happened) from a still photo.

For example, if there is a photo of a person approaching another and extending a hand towards them, AI can “guess” that the people will shake hands. Then, it can create a realistic video of the two individuals shaking hands, whether it actually happened or not. Other universities are experimenting with this, as well. University of Washington scraped president Obama’s voice from The View and created a video of him talking. The video was never actually recorded, yet it looks convincing.

However, beyond the current research being conducted, there are also several examples of facial recognition already being used, today. Face++ is an important company that you have not heard of. In China, this technology is being used in a powerful manner. Chinese society has a more permissive attitude towards privacy, as there is government support for building infrastructure and applications based on face recognition. Here are two examples:

Smile to Pay via Alipay allows customers of a fast food restaurant, to order food at a kiosk and they can simply smile to pay using AI and facial recognition.

This technology can be used to publicly shame people for doing undesired behavior. For example, jaywalkers will be recognized and their information including their name, where you work will be displayed on a large bill board.

What impact will this trend have on society? Amy Webb presents an optimistic, pragmatic and pessimistic framing.

#2: AI is already here. It just didn’t show up as we all expected

AI has become such a part of many peoples’ daily lives that we don’t even recognize it, especially if it is Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI), a system that can perform a single focused task as well as, or better than, a human.

However, there’s a tremendous amount of misplaced optimism and fear.

The Robots are going to kill us all but not before they take all our jobs.

This misconception gets in the way of us truly understanding and leveraging this technology for greater good.

AI is the next era of computing. In a stunning example of how far Deep Learning has progressed, an AI system was able to teach itself the game Go, an ancient Chinese strategy board game. AlphaGo Zero learned the game and beat humans in 40 days.

The big eight

There is a consolidation in the AI ecosystem and the Big Eight companies that control the future of Artificial Intelligence are Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and IBM. Note that the first three companies are based in China.

Data is the next oil

Data is key to training these AI systems, and by 2038, human data will be a valuable natural resource. Companies who have them will have a significant advantage.


As governments realize the power of this data, they will create “walled gardens” to control and protect it. This will lead to the emergence of “splinternets” — smaller versions of the internet created for specific regions. There are quite a few pending cases and regulations that indicate that governments are starting to pay attention to who owns data. For example, in Germany, social networks must delete hate speech within 24 hours of posting or be fined $57 million per instance. Europe is preparing to enforce Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is taking effect in May 2018. In Canada, Google must scrub pirated products from search results.

Future regional splinternets will exacerbate the problem of fake news. We can look to China today to see how this could play out in other parts of the world.

What impact will this trend have on society? Amy Webb presents an optimistic, pragmatic and pessimistic framing.

#3: Biology is the most important technology platform of the 21st century

There have been several recent advances in personalized medicine, such as CRISPR+ genomic editing, digitization of the human body, and nano-technology that can remarkably improve people’s longevity and health.

There are a number of interesting applications of these technical advances. For example, Talking Tattoos is a color changing skin tattoo that continuously monitors blood sugar levels. Digital Volume Rendering (DVR) is new research that records and stores information about our cells as we age. This allows us to observe how humans age. This raises the question — if we can quantify aging at a cellular level, could we save earlier versions of ourselves?

What impact will this trend have on society? Amy Webb presents an optimistic, pragmatic and pessimistic framing.

Listen to the audio of Amy Webb’s SXSW session at:, and a link to the full report is available at


Knowing about tech trends is not enough. It is important to take action in order to influence future scenarios. What can we do in the present to design the future we want to live in? Can we nudge the probabilistic model towards an optimistic future? Here is a call to action for each one of us:

  • Business leaders have an opportunity and responsibility to make smarter strategic decisions and investments and prepare for these technology trends.
  • Governments have the opportunity to create structures and norms proactively, without having to write policy and regulations under duress.
  • Designers and creative people everywhere have the opportunity to make future human-centered.
  • Consumers and citizens have a responsibility to fight for the future we all want to live in.

While these statements were true at SXSW a few weeks ago, as I reflect on them, they are even more relevant today. We are entering an era of accelerated change, in which technology can amplify our intentions beyond our wildest imaginations. It is our responsibility hold each other accountable for examining the societal impact of our intentions, so we can co-create an optimistic future.

Thanks to Sue Ju for illustrations. Thanks to Madelyn Andree, Pravin Kumar, Sahana Kumar and Stephen Klein for your thoughtful comments and edits.



Janaki Mythily Kumar
Experience Matters

Design leader experienced in building, coaching, inspiring high-performance design teams and driving design-led transformation in the enterprise.