Artificial Intelligence at SXSW 2017: Is the human race threatened by a “significant problem”?
An important topic that is hotly debated at SXSW is Artificial Intelligence (AI). As was already the case last year, it is no longer just about exploring potential possibilities, but rather about social questions and problems associated with artificial intelligence.
The big questions are: Will bots or robots be more intelligent than we ourselves in the future? Can you then still be controlled by us? What does this mean for humanity and society? Is the prediction of science fiction films like Ex Machina or iRobot really catching up with us?
Artificial intelligence is currently known primarily through language assistants such as Alexa and Siri or through chatbots that can answer simple questions. In the context of the SXSW, however, all stages of development of artificial intelligence will be discussed. The area of tension ranges from simple best practice cases and customer services to future topics such as AI safety (security). The discussion is driven by the “explosion” of available data and the advances in the area of machine / deep learning – i.e. the ability of computers to learn from experience using artificial neural networks, for example for speech recognition, face recognition, etc.
Almost all AI sessions in Austin were opened with quotes from well-known personalities such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk or Steve Wosniak and set the tone for a critical discussion of artificial intelligence. Elon Musk, for example, has a clear stance on the subject of artificial intelligence: “With AI, we are summoning the demon.”
AI in action
The areas of application for artificial intelligence are diverse – and the trend is rising. Use cases for which AI and bots can be used well can be found, for example, in the travel industry when communicating flight delays or cancellations. Thanks to the fast data collection and the “numbness” of the bots, they can often provide better information and support than humans. Another area of application is in the area of brand engagement: Bots become the voice of companies and take over their communication. In the brand context, people usually have very simple questions that a bot can handle well. The challenge is to hit the right tonality.
SXSW speaker Chris Messina, the inventor of the #Hashtag, showed another step. He presented his personal assistant in the form of a bot, the MessinaBot. In Facebook Messenger, he answers questions about his “boss”, makes appointments for him or provides information about the next conferences at which Messina will appear as a speaker. A really good scenario that shows what is currently feasible and useful.
But the potential of artificial intelligence is far from over here. The next evolutionary stage is already in the starting blocks: emotional and contextual AI bots that follow human values and develop case-dependent personalities. This makes sense because a universal personality does not fit every situation or every person opposite.
Limits of intelligence
In the course of these visions of the future, the topic of social responsibility comes on the table, which is being heavily discussed at this year’s SXSW. All sides are trying to draw attention to the problems and challenges for society associated with the increasing spread of AI applications. There are of course no final answers to these questions. But I think it is good and urgent to question developments like AI and to deal with them critically, as is done in Austin.
The SXSW: a conclusion
The conference is and will remain an Eldorado for tech companies and digital specialists. What I think is a shame about the SXSW: It has grown enormously over the years, and the range is huge. But also the number of visitors. As a result, people queue up before the interesting sessions, an hour before the start. Therefore, the really exciting topics tend to go under – these are increasingly presented in “private sessions”. In my experience, it is extremely helpful if you are well connected via a WhatsApp group and thus receive the relevant news. My advice for visitors to SXSW 2018: Find out beforehand who else is there and exchange ideas. Do not plan a lot, it will go wrong, just let yourself be carried away. There are enough interesting things to discover.