SXSW 2023: The future is now

No topic was as present at SXSW 2023 as artificial intelligence. But there is disagreement and uncertainty about how to deal with this. These are some of the most important theses of this year’s SXSW at a glance.

SXSW has always stood for trends and hypes: Be it Blockchain, NFTs or Metaverse – every year a Next Big Thing was discussed that will turn everything upside down in the future, only to then often be devoted to the next hype in the next year. It was different this year: With ChatGPT, the hype was already there and attempts were made to find pragmatic solutions for dealing with AI.

Das Austin Convention Center
Das Austin Convention Center, © Erik Janshon, ARTUS interactive

Lots of open questions from Open AI President Greg Brockman

The most exciting guest on the subject came as a stand-in, because those responsible for the SXSW program planning allegedly couldn’t get hold of the real star of Open AI. And so instead of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, President Greg Brockman had to take the stage. He used this primarily to report on product development, the complex test cycles and beta phases. When it came to technical details, Brockman spoke with bright eyes and enthusiasm.

However, there was a gap when it came to the really important, namely the ethical questions. How to deal with ChatGPT reporting false information as real? To what extent do the answers have to be ethically justifiable? What about copyright? Or that many people are currently fearing for their jobs? Where does the AI ​​get its data from and how is it trained?

Brockman himself didn’t seem to see any cause for concern: After all, people make mistakes and the jobs are generally safe. But of course there are still a few questions to be answered – on the other hand, he rarely sees the obligation to answer with Open AI. However, one could imagine hiring philosophers in the near future to deal with these questions. One wonders why this hasn’t happened a long time ago.

AI spreads joy and needs human input

John Maeda, vice president of design and AI at Microsoft, jumped to his side when it came to the workplace topic. It is not jobs that are lost, but tasks, namely those that – in the spirit of Marie Kondo – do not bring joy. Instead of us bothering ourselves with managing the calendar, creating powerpoints or answering unimportant e-mails, an AI can take care of all the listless stuff in the future. Meanwhile, we focus on the important things: making decisions, building and maintaining relationships, learning or developing strategies and being creative. According to Maede, AI can help us become better people.

A session at SXSW 2023
A session at SXSW 2023, © Erik Janshon, ARTUS interactive

The founders of the Non-Obvious Company and innovation expert Rohit Bhargava and trend researcher Henry Coutinho-Mason also represented an optimistic, more practical approach to new technologies with their non-obvious trends. They believe that we should make technologies usable in a positive way: Smartwatches will soon be able to warn us about prediabetes, chatbots can counteract depression – even psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel was not entirely unimpressed by the abilities of an Esther AI at first glance . Bhargava and Coutinho-Mason combined another example of positively usable technology with an exciting announcement: In the near future, both will hold the first keynote, which will be available simultaneously in 71 languages ​​- by an AI that has been trained on their voices.

The AISMOSIS is imminent

was usual admonishing Amy Webbs, futurist and annual star of SXSW, look at the new technologies and our future. According to her, we are on the verge of AISMOSIS, the day when artificial intelligence can interact with all data on the Internet without restrictions and across the board. The consequence:

We’re no longer browsing the internet, the internet is browsing us!

A development that, according to Webb, goes hand in hand with Web3 and will therefore also take place partially decentrally. However, only the large tech companies will fully benefit from this, as they have the required data centers.

The regulators will be very late to the party,

she predicts. And until then, one cannot rely on self-regulation by companies like Open AI. Years ago, their company managers pointed out the effects of generative AI in a press release – which did not stop them from simply bringing their product to market. For years there have been warnings – also and especially at SXSW – that an ethical approach to artificial intelligence must be found. Webb makes it clear that apart from warnings nothing has happened so far and it is all the more important to act quickly.

In the case of Amy Webb, the subtext resonates that AI could also serve as a role model, which has not been the case to date. This is illustrated by an example in which Webb asked DALL-E to generate images of a CEO. The result: four different versions of an old white man in a suit. Even after several adjustments to the prompt, the AI ​​could not be convinced that a CEO could also be a woman.

Technology has quietly overtaken us

In addition to the felt main topic AI, Web 3 also played a role, but its great hype potential seemed a bit gone. While in recent years topics such as cryptocurrencies seemed likely to turn the entire financial world upside down, blogger Molly White only sees it as a promise to get rich as quickly as possible. In her blog, Web 3 Is Going Just Great, she collects cases where things around blockchains, crypto and Web 3 technology are not going quite as well as we are sometimes led to believe. And she, too, sees a change from the Internet as we know it: According to White, a non-profit project like Wikipedia could no longer be created today.

Never before has SXSW focused so much on the present as this year. AI has always been touted as the future at past conferences, and the AI ​​that has been in use for years has been dismissed as machine learning. With ChatGPT, this future AI was finally here. Technology has passed us in the past year and it is now up to us to catch up and find a human way of dealing with it. Or as the new wave band New Order put it:

The machines are not making the music. If you put cold music in, you get cold music out!

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