The 4 Most Interesting Ideas Shared at SXSWi 2016

March 21, 2016 Kris Hammond

SXSWi 2016 Artificial Intelligence

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited by Umbel to join the panel, “Big Data & AI: Sci-Fi vs. Everyday Applications”, that kicked off the beginning of SXSW Interactive 2016.

I was particularly lucky in that my co-panelists were Doug Lenat, CEO of Cycorp, who has been working on automating common sense reasoning for over 30 years and Rayid Ghani, Research Director of the Center for Data Science & Public Policy University of Chicago and who also lead the Obama 2012 data team. He now looks at the impact of data in the formation and direction of social policy.

Each of us came to the panel with a distinct opinion on the role that AI and data play in the development of practical systems which made for a lively discussion. Doug is a huge proponent of commonsense reasoning as a means of tempering the more statistical approaches that define much of AI today. Rayid is focused on the need to make better use of analytic techniques in the understanding of action underlying issues such as systemic racism in law enforcement and employment. 

And I, as one might expect, was focused on the notion of empowering man and machine partnerships though the aggressive use of explanatory technologies such as Quill, our advanced natural language generation platform, that facilitate communication.

In the end, we came to the consensus that the best approaches to AI begins with a partnership between user and system that is facilitated through a combination of analysis to generate facts, inference to better characterize them and language generation to communicate the respective conclusions and insight.

It is always nice when everyone converges on what we do for a living!

Interesting Ideas From SXSWi 2016

After the panel, I explored the rest of SXSWi, and I walked away with four primary observations:

1) Virtual reality (VR) is everywhere

There were interactive installations from the obvious players, Samsung, IBM and Sony, all of whom had some form of VR experience highlighting either hardware or software solutions. But so did McDonald's, Gillette and a half dozen other vendors. The next wave of VR is now deployment, rather than research, and the issues are no longer quality so much as price point.

2) The physical world has become less interesting

In other words, the world of the “maker” and 3D printing has become passé. There were very few installations and the few 3D printer vendors present were on the fray. Even the 3D printer repurposed to make pizza was somewhat ignored, and who doesn’t love pizza?

This is not to say that 3D printing is unimportant. On the contrary, it has now reached the stage where the true value proposition of the devices and their capabilities are being realized rather than the frivolous use cases like the personalized key chain fob printed in 15 minutes.

3) Everyone is embracing the power of data

And I mean everyone. The CEO of Zikto, a South Korean company, showed me its wearable device that tracks movement and reports data related to correcting posture/stride. Gatorade gave me a customized drink package based on the chemical balance of my sweat (seriously). I also had an enlightening conversation with a co-founder of a small company in Ohio, Krush, that tracks facial expressions during mobile video viewing.

In all these instances, the long-term focus was on the power of the data rather than the specific mechanisms for capturing it. Each organization clearly knew that the data, in particular data about people and their relationship with their bodies, as well as the rest of the world, is astoundingly valuable. Each company, in their own way, is building a path towards gathering and using data with the eventual goal of integrating it with a variety of sources.

And, of course, everyone I spoke with also saw that the end game of data is communication with the people who are going to use it, and none of them were designing products for analysts or data scientists.

4) AI is becoming practical

And finally, there were a lot of sessions and conversations about AI. Similar to my panel experience, some of these conversations were focused on capabilities but far more were focused on the implications of AI and cognitive computing.

People now understand the latest round of AI systems as a done deal, and we have begun to enter the phase where we are thinking about what these technologies are going to mean for day-to-day work, employment, our personal lives and what it means when technology does more work than we do.

I’m happy to report that, at least from what I observed at SXSWi, we are entering a post-skeptical world and starting the conversation about what AI truly means for the future.


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