Top 4 Takeaways From SXSW 2017

South by Southwest (SXSW) is likely the largest place or event that truly embraces the convergence of art, technology, and humanity. Integrating global, futuristic ideas with the realities of current technology, SXSW becomes the launch point for some of the world’s next most impactful innovations.

So of course within five days of speakers, panel discussions, meetups, expos, pitches and interviews, you’re faced with an overwhelming amount of information. It’s fascinating and daunting at the same time. Not only because of the sheer volume of new ideas, but because extracting the “what now?” isn’t exactly clear.

So let’s start small and work our way up—starting with what is known, to give four fantastic takeaways from Nina Hale’s SXSW experience.


1. Be Authentic and Take Risks

I spent a lot of time learning about something I think I know pretty well—digital advertising. But none of us can see into the distant future. To keep up with the changing technological landscape, we need to “learn how to learn,” as quoted by Tale of Future Cities panelist Alex Rossin (Shinola Audio). In that spirit, how do brands specifically learn how to learn?

Jonathan Jackson (Blavity) answered this question pretty well in his five-minute story, How to keep it 100 and not embarrass your brand. “Keeping it 100” means be who you say you are—be authentic. He noted that attention is currency, and brands have to take a chance, get out of their comfort zone. In the same story session, Ann Marinovich (Forbes) noted that “it’s more important to be timeless than timely.”

So we all have some trepidation about the next decade of ad tech (will there even be ad tech as we know it?). But even though we can’t see the future, we know ourselves. As long as we stick to our roots, we’re not blind as to how we move forward, and can learn how to make a lasting impression on our audience.


2. We’ve Reached Peak “Things”

I also learned a lot about what I don’t know—the future. Anyone paying attention in marketing can tell you that artificial intelligence (AI) and the “internet of things” are not the future, but exist in the here and now. Wearables, voice assistants, and chatbots have developed a stronghold. But Jeff Wilson (Kasita) doesn’t see things staying this way for too long. His tiny smarthome design isn’t an amalgamation of smart-this and smart-that, but instead considers a smarthome as an integrated product.

The future of AI will incorporate deep machine learning into how we live, eat, work, and play. AI will become immersive, personal, and will put the control back into our hands.

Tan Le (Emotiv) would agree with this; as she says, “things we can control digitally, we’re not far from controlling mentally.” Her advanced EEG headset already allows people to move physical objects with a simple thought. Eventually we’ll be able to control our internet of things and not the other way around.


3. But If We Want Control, We Have To Take It

Tan Le also argued that with large advances in technology come large risks. If a wearable can read our brainwaves, what do we have that’s still secure? Today in the US, government controls policy and infrastructure, hospitals and insurance providers control our health records, and ad tech platforms control our data. Even though it’s OUR city, OUR health, and OUR data.

Another five-minute storyteller, Tina Cannon (Austin Chamber of Commerce) posed the question, “is government really in our way, or are we in our own way?” Her point being that for change to really happen, we need grassroots advocacy—we need people to show up. Ines Almeida (Unonimity) noted “it would be great if brands could pay consumers for their data.” And finally Clay Johnston (Dell Medical School at UT Austin) called out that “even HIPAA says the patient owns their own health records. And though the government is moving toward data-sharing technology, we ultimately need patients to stand up and demand access.”

Tina Cannon, Ignite Internet Stories (twitter)

So we understand with the rapid technological advances, there’s also a possibility that we lose more and more control, letting the machines take over. And the current state is that we do for the most part, let that happen. But now is the perfect time to flip that switch and take back what belongs to us, before it doesn’t.


4. Humanity Needs Technology

So I know I just pitted humanity against technology in that Newsie-esque pep talk, but when it’s all said and done, we can’t ignore technology’s enormous potential for doing good. I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of a “tech for humanity” focus this year. It was my favorite trending topic, and several panelists would likely say the same. Case in point:

Beacons are now being utilized by emergency services to find accident and fire victims. These same police forces are also using face recognition technology to more efficiently identify missing or exploited children. Smart City (another trending 2017 topic) experts are using AI to make basic human needs—like education, healthcare, and food—more accessible and affordable to those in poverty. Media organizations are developing deep machine learning that spots fake news stories, so they can swap them with verified truths. Finally, researchers at the ACLU and University of Michigan are using bots to identify and combat algorithms promoting online discrimination.

Then there’s healthcare. Remember the EEG headset that lets you move objects with your brain? That part’s just a perk really. Tan Le knew we were starting to outlive our brains. The Emotiv device supports long-term brain health, and could potentially detect early biomarkers for dementia, and introduce non-pharmaceutical treatments like brain exercises. Emotive touts future abilities to treat ADHD, schizophrenia, epilepsy, and migraines. Virtual Reality technologies also exist to treat dementia, chronic & severe pain, and depression. Instances of VR have moved patients out of full paralysis, a formerly incurable state of being.

Ever heard of IoB? It means “internet of baby things,” and I learned about 20+ different devices that could help prevent SIDS or treat preemies. Deep 6 Analytics, a smart data platform, applies AI technology to efficiently match patients to clinical trials, to find cures faster. This technology could eventually match donors with hopeful transplant patients. Imagine what we’ll be able to treat, diagnose, and maybe cure, in the next decade.


So, yes: There was an incredible volume of new information, and I could write at length about each individual session. But these four takeaways are most relevant to us as marketers, as humans. And although rapid advancements pose the risk of an Isaac Asimov-like future, we have to embrace technology for its potential to better the lives of our children and grandchildren. If we stay true to our roots, and harness control, we just might overthrow the robots.




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