Jobs, Morality and Getting a Seat: The Biggest AI Questions at SXSW

11 min read

Since its inception in 1986 as a regional music festival, Austin’s South by Southwest — better known as SXSW — has ballooned into one of the country’s most celebrated events for technology, music and film. Just last year, its speakers included Christiane Amanpour, Elon Musk and Steven Spielberg.

The buzz is already beginning for 2019. At this point, SXSW isn’t just a festival or conference — it’s a barometer of the top concerns and interests of society in any given year.

So what will this year’s lineup look like? In a word: AI.

Hugh Forrest has been the Chief Programming Officer of SXSW since 1989 — long enough to be one of the definitive experts on the subject.

To those wondering what proposals will most likely be voted into reality by the public, and which panels will have the best attendance, he says, “a pretty sure bet for a crowded panel or solo presentation at the 2019 SXSW Conference in Austin is almost any session whose title includes the words ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘AI’. Over the last five years, panels and presentations that include one of these two keywords have proven to be extremely popular with attendees.”

An AI Boom

According to Forrest, artificial intelligence has seen an increasing boom in popularity over the past few years as a topic for SXSW. In 2017, 153 of the speaker proposals put up for voting were related to AI.

In 2018, this number went up to 201. And this year, the number of AI-related proposals is at a whopping 379. “We expect AI to again be one of the larger themes next spring in Austin,” says Forrest.

Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer of SXSW, talks AI
Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer of SXSW, talks about AI technology at the event.

But what sort of AI-related programming can attendees expect to see? Last year featured a broad range of topics at the forefront of the public consciousness right now, and within this, a few common themes emerged.

Among the 20 most well-attended sessions on AI at SXSW last year, a substantial percentage were concerned with how AI will affect people’s professional lives.

Sessions like “Content Creation in the Age of AI,” “AI in Healthcare: Is It Worth the Investment?,” “AI: Transforming Luxury, Fashion and Beauty,” and “Sci-Fi to Reality: The Evolution of AI in the Workplace” were certainly diverse, but boil down to one essential question: jobs.

Above all, what people want to know is how AI will impact them personally. Of course, it’s hard to get more personal than how you put food on the table.

Responsible Innovation

The other most popular topic of discussion was ethical AI.

Other highly attended sessions on AI also included panels such as “Responsible Innovation in the Age of AI” and “Hacking the Racial Bias in Artificial Intelligence.”

Most seem to agree that the development of AI needs to proceed responsibly. But as of yet, there is little consensus as to what that means. What is ethical AI, and how should we work to create it?

As one of the greatest concerns many have about AI, this critical conversation will continue to be hashed out at tech events across the country. This includes not only SXSW 2019, but events like Time Machine, an Austin-based conference focused solely on the issues and opportunities of AI, from the role and ethics of AI in warfare to robot soccer.

The role of AI in the future to come will be a great debate as we prepare for this new digital age.

A Split Vision

Just how worried or optimistic should we be about AI?

Speakers at SXSW 2018 had opinions across the board — even as Elon Musk was doubling down on his fears during a Q&A, other panels were arguing that “AI Will Help Feed a Growing Planet” and that “Humans & Machines Unite to Change the World.”

Forrest expects to see a similar distribution of opinions this coming year.

“The spilt at SXSW seems pretty much right down the middle, with about half the sessions excited about the new opportunities that artificial intelligence will bring, and the other half taking a slightly less optimistic view of this technology,” he explains. “The split that occurs within SXSW programming probably reflects the general split within society at large about the power (and peril) of the brave new world of AI.”

Looking at these past panels, one thing is clear: Whether it’s jobs, ethical AI or how we should feel about the approaching AI age, SXSW continues to be a mirror reflecting the questions people find most pressing — and 2019 will surely be no different.

To those interested in the answers to these questions — or at least, in getting in on the discussion — Forrest has one piece of advice.

“Get to those artificial intelligence sessions early,” he says. “They tend to fill up quickly!”

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