What's left for humans to do?: Four takeaways from SXSW

ClickZ missed SXSW this year, but luckily, SapientNitro's Zachary Jean Paradis was there to give us the lowdown. Here are his main takeaways from Texas.

ClickZ missed SXSW this year, but luckily, SapientNitro’s Zachary Jean Paradis was there to give us the lowdown. Here are his main takeaways from Texas.

Now that the smoke has cleared and the dust has settled on another triumphant South by Southwest (SXSW), it’s time for a thoughtful reassessment of what stood out, and what will be trending in the year ahead.

1. The surge of messaging: Command line of brands

Years ago, text and the command line were the only way you could interact with a computer. Command lines forced people to understand code to accomplish the things we can do now through the graphical user interface, such as dragging and clicking. But the continued use of text messaging and the explosion of new messaging apps – a command line of sorts – has become the dominant way to interact.

Every day, 257 billion text messages are sent and according to Ericsson’s Mobility Report from 2015, 6 billion people will own a smartphone by 2020. That’s 70 percent of the world’s population.

Messaging is becoming the entry point for digital experiences and evolving into the next central communications, media and commerce hubs. WeChat is the most well-used example, with 900 million registered users, as well as 10 million businesses in China. Users can add buddies and then interact to transfer money, book travel, and much more.

We’re going to see more of these seamless services adopted by other messaging platforms. For example, you can already book, and pay for, an Uber through Facebook.

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Messaging is also becoming more automated. In a thoughtful panel on Conversational UI, executives from Uber, WeChat and weight-loss app Lark discussed how bot-driven messaging is powering compelling interactions between brands and consumers.

2. In my robot life

Bots aren’t powering just digital interactions; they’re gaining physical form, as well. While Christian Slater was promoting his latest film, Mr. Robot, robots and robotics made a big impression in Austin. The real question is, whether these robots are here to make our lives better or if they’re on an evil rampage to discriminate, dominate and make us wish we had never opened Pandora’s box in the first place.

Besides having the chance to visit the festival’s first Robot Ranch, attendees heard Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, argue that we will live in a robot society in the next three to four years. Ishiguro is on a mission to develop robots with intentions and desires. He is trying to answer questions – such as “What is beauty?” and “What is conversation?” – to incorporate a better understanding of humans.

People want robots to be human; we like robots to look and act like us. Natural voice is a key method for making robots more human. In many cases, people are more likely to speak to a human-like interface than to a human: no embarrassment, no judgment.

Research shows that robots can have a positive physiological impact on humans. Furthermore, robots rival the human brain in their ability to capture and retain an infinite amount of data. The opportunities for robots to support humans could change the game for the elderly.


3. Baby, you can hack my car

Automotive manufacturers have a long history of safety engineering, but not security engineering. Connected vehicles could reduce traffic accidents by 80 percent – 25 percent are caused by people using their phones while driving – but until security is robust, there is a real threat that someone might hijack your car.

In a panel called “Hacking Your Ride,” we learned that there are already 22 million connected vehicles in the world, a number that will rise to 82 million by 2022. That’s 82 million hackable devices driving at a speed that can do real damage to the real world.

Some white hats want to hack vehicles for the good of mankind, improving the experience and the utility. However, there are organized gangs who do hack for commercial gain, as well as terrorists who hack for, well, terror. But the growth of connected vehicles and the economy of companies building businesses from data have raised concerns on data security.

4. Your data, your worth, your security

We’re rapidly moving to a next phase of wearable technlogy: ingestibles, hearables, sweatables, and implants. One session called “Virtual Physicians: The Future of Healthcare” explored ingestible sensors that collect data about how patients respond to medicine.


With this explosion of data being collected about us as individuals, must we all become data scientists? If a health insurance company wants to increase your premium because of data collected by your wearables and ingestibles, how will you respond? It is essential to have a good understand of what data is being used to determine that value. We must all become data literate, if not data scientists.

Rest assured

Artificial intelligence, big data, virtual and augmented reality, and the Internet of Things were all major topics throughout SXSW. However, the ethical dimension was present in all conversations, and that can only be a good thing.

It’s progress through technology, but not at the expense of our humanity. That will be the key message for 2016, and likely take center stage at SXSW in 2017.

Zachary Jean Paradis is the director of experience strategy at SapientNitro.

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