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What’s Next In Tech: Takeaways from SXSW

Terry Stephenson, VP, Business Development
#Brand | Posted

Phase2 was in Austin last week for South By Southwest, the frenetic, ever-expanding conference celebrating the latest in technology, design, art, and entrepreneurship. We co-hosted a “Drupal Drop In” lunch with our partner, Acquia, and got a chance to speak with attendees about this year’s most popular SXSW themes. Here are a few of the highlights:

AI and Machine Learning

Many panels and sessions focused on the emerging applications (and moral ambiguities) of artificial intelligence, the rapidly evolving technology that underlies machine learning, deep analytics, the cognitive web, and advanced robotics. If you’ve pulled up at a stoplight next to a driverless car or been blown away by Amazon’s intuition when suggesting products, you’ve experienced AI in action.

A few key takeaways:

  • The scale and speed at which data can be mined and insights intelligently extracted is accelerating at a breakneck pace. Machine learning systems are mature enough to perform tremendous feats. However, systems are only as good as the data they rely upon. In this area, many problems persist, and threading together large, complex, and disparate data sets is still fraught with errors. Once the underlying data challenges are solved, adoption is poised to skyrocket.
  • Artificial intelligence means big business. In healthcare alone it’s estimated that by 2021 the annual spend on AI will total $6 billion, a more than tenfold increase from 2017. Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and serial entrepreneur, predicted during his panel, “The world’s first trillionaires are going to come from somebody who masters AI and all its derivatives and applies it in ways we never thought of”.
  • The potential applications are limitless. Computer-aided health diagnostics, safer disaster response, unlocking solutions to diseases that plague us… the list of impactful changes AI could deliver goes on and on.

VR/AR at an Adoption Intersection

Virtual and augmented reality have been all the buzz for the past couple of years. However, the business and consumer use cases have been narrowly relegated to the media, gaming, and entertainment industries. That’s definitely changing. International real estate agencies are using AR to market high end properties, and big brands such as Coca-Cola are leveraging VR to forge deeper connections with consumers. As highlighted in Mike Mangi’s talk at P2Con last year, nonprofits and NGOs are using VR to create immersive, visceral experiences that spark action on issues such as refugee assistance and women’s rights.

Not everyone completely agrees on the immediacy of VR for business, though, especially as it pertains to marketing efforts. Head of VanyerMedia Gary Vanyerchuk remarked during his panel, “People are worried about VR when they haven’t figured out how to do a proper Facebook ad spend.”

We were also intrigued by the arrival of projection-based computing, which opens the door to new immersive experiences for everything from music to design to gaming. Sony’s “WOW! Factory” featured their soon-to-be-released Xperia platform, which will turn any surface into a 23 inch monitor. Merging digital with the physical domain, it proved a hot attraction and elicited many an “oooh” and “ahhh” from conference attendees.

Digital Unites  

At its core, digital transformation is about replacing traditional business methods with digitized solutions that promote connectivity, efficiency, and agility. At SXSW, the impacts of digital transformation were inescapable. From the hyperlocal (an increased emphasis on attendee collaboration within the SXSW Go app itself) to the global (a panel focused on the role tech-enabled communities can play in solving international humanitarian crises), the power of digital to dissolve barriers was an underlying theme throughout the Interactive and Convergence tracks.

From our work with the World Bank to UN ReliefWeb, Phase2 has long believed in the power of open data to address global challenges. Needless to say, we were energized to see the topic take center stage at SXSW. This was best exemplified in Joe Biden’s speech on the “Cancer Moonshot” initiative, which has made information sharing and cross-platform collaboration a central pillar in their efforts to conquer cancer.

As part of this massive undertaking, a team led by the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the University of Chicago have launched the Genomic Data Commons (GDC), an open data repository granting the world’s clinicians and researchers access to an ever-growing trove of previously unavailable information related to cancer patients. Soon, doctors across nine countries will be able to analyze tumor genome sequences, compare individual responses to specific interventions, and gain insights into the way subtypes of cancer react to current treatments.

The Impact of Inclusivity

SXSW is more than just innovation and creativity; it is also about continually elevating the conversation around diversity in tech. Kudos to the conference’s programming team for making gender equality and inclusion a main focus this year. There was solid representation of both men and women on stage most of the time, and sessions covered a broad swath of subjects, from battling ageism in tech to growing the number of African American-led VC funds.

The most powerful talk we witnessed was delivered by Jessica Shortall, who is the Managing Director of Texas Competes, a coalition of more than 1,200 Texas companies making the data-driven case for Texas to be more welcoming to LGBTQ people. In her Convergence Keynote, Ms. Shortall spoke about building cultural bridges in times of division, and how she’s using data to help foster a more inviting business climate for people of all backgrounds and sexual orientations. And the data is irrefutable: exclusionary laws and business practices have massively detrimental economic impacts. The human consequences are even more dire, and the conviction with which Ms. Shortall spoke was punctuated by this quote: “Data is how I do my job, but love is why.”

Terry Stephenson

Terry Stephenson

VP, Business Development