As we’re heading to Austin for this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW), it is only natural to be excited about new gadgets, trends and technologies. And when some of the smartest people in the industry present their visions about the future, we’re expecting it will be hard not to get carried away.
Case in point: Ray Kurzweil—the famous inventor, author and futurist—is coming back to SXSW this year to talk about artificial intelligence (AI)—which he predicts will match, or exceed, human intelligence in every area by 2029. The way he sees it, that’s not bad news at all.
Indeed, the description for his talk—called The Power of Ideas to Transform the World is Accelerating—says that, essentially, “we will use AI to intensify human intelligence in the way that a lens can intensify the power of the sun. Ultimately, this new form of hybrid intelligence will enable us to solve humanity’s grandest challenges.” Can we bank on that, though?
We’re surrounded by yesteryear’s future tech. And, far from experiencing that our ‘grandest challenges’ are being solved, a growing feeling of disillusionment seems to be taking hold. With everything that’s going on in the world—think Trump, Brexit, fake news and filter bubbles—there’s a sense of losing control. And while it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s going on, it seems that technology and the internet is somehow to blame.
At the same time, we’re seeing studies about growing anxiety, depression and risk of suicide among teenagers, who spend their social lives online, experienced through smartphone screens (read this piece in The Atlantic). Now, increasingly often we’re hearing from friends and colleagues that—due to feeling stressed and unfocused—they’ve disabled all notifications save phone calls and direct messages, and have even uninstalled Facebook from their phones.
In short, something is going on.
We’re not saying that there’s no reason to be optimistic about the future. Kurzweil just might be right—as usual. Looking back at history, new technologies do indeed coincide with progress in a broader sense.
That being said: “AI has enormous potential for improving the world, from increasing productivity to creating new medicines. But to realize AI’s promise rather than its potential threats, the systemic barriers of entry must be fixed to engage much broader diversity in its creators.”
The quote above is from the description of Democratizing AI for Individuals & Organizations, another SXSW panel, featuring among others Fei-Fei Li, the Director of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab and Chief Scientist of AI/ML at Google Cloud. In October, Li put it brilliantly in a story over at MIT Technology Review, calling out for putting humans at the center of AI:
“When you are making a technology this pervasive and this important for humanity, you want it to carry the values of the entire humanity, and serve the needs of the entire humanity. If the developers of this technology do not represent all walks of life, it is very likely that this will be a biased technology. I say this as a technologist, a researcher, and a mother. And we need to be speaking about this clearly and loudly.”
As we head to SXSW this year, then, we’re excited about the visions that come from a human perspective. We want to learn more about the implications of living in a world that is ruled by algorithms, and shared with AI. And we want to see technology used not just to make life even easier for the already privileged. Rather, we’re interested in how tech is being used to address real issues in the world, from global warming to food scarcity, poverty and refugee crises.
A great example of this, that we very much look forward to, is Josephine Goube’s talk Let’s Tech the Borders Down. As CEO of Techfugees, Goube is at the forefront of a movement that is empowering the displaced with technology. Techfugees is no isolated case. You have other initiatives such as the Center for Humane Technology, Good Technology Collective and Blockchain for Social Impact, just to name a few. Thousands have signed The Copenhagen Letter, addressed “to everyone who shapes technology today”, stating that it is time to take responsibility for the world they’re creating. And there are more and more ethical and philosophical public conversations about technology.
Here’s a few events you definitely shouldn’t miss this year – in chronological order:
How Do We Ethically Manipulate 2b Minds – with Tristan Harris of Time Well Spent, on how a handful of technology companies have exponential influence over the contents of two billion people's minds and actions. Mar 9, 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM, Austin Convention Center Ballroom EFG.
Let's Tech the Borders Down – with Techfugees’ CEO Josephine Goube. Mar 9, 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM, Austin Convention Center Ballroom D.
Journalism in the Age of Trump: Ta-Nehisi Coates in Conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg (convergence keynote). Mar 10, 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM, Austin Convention Center Ballroom D.
The End of Global Hunger? AI Will Make it Work – with Pranav Khaitan (Google), Robert Opp (World Food Programme), Osamuyimen T Uyi Stewart (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and Zenia Tata (Xprize). Mar 10, 3:30 PM – 4:30 PM, Westin Austin Downtown Continental 3
Wear Your Values on Your Sleeve – a look into the fashion supply chain with Ayesha Barenblat. Mar 12, 5:00 PM – 6:00 PM, Westin Austin Downtown Continental 1-2.
Create the World You Want to Live In – NPR’s Guy Raz in conversation with supermodel-turned-entrepreneur Karlie Kloss and Adidas’ head of global brands, Eric Liedtke, about creating a better tomorrow. Mar 12, 5:00 PM – 6:00 PM, Austin Convention Center Ballroom EFG.
The Power of Ideas to Transform the World is Accelerating – Ray Kurzweil in conversation with Mashable’s Jessica Coen. Mar 13, 3:30 PM – 4:30 PM, Austin Convention Center Ballroom D.
Skam: Powerful Digital Storytelling In Real Time – with Julie Andem (among others), creator of the real-time Norwegian web series Skam, that addressed a number of social issues in clever and relatable ways, and went viral –gaining a large following far beyond Norway’s borders. Andem is now shooting the American version of the series in Austin. Mar 13, 3:30 PM – 4:30 PM, Westin Austin Downtown Continental 1-2.
Democratizing AI for Individuals & Organizations – with Dr. Fei-Fei Li, Megan Smith and Joanne Chen. Mar 13, 9:30 AM – 10:30 AM, Austin Convention Center Ballroom EFG.
Innovate the Nordic Way: Solve Real Problems – with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, on how to use tech to solve real problems in the world. Mar 13, 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM, Hilton Austin Downtown Salon B.
Blockchain for Refugees: Economic Passports – with Ashish Gadnis from BanQu, who use blockchain to restore that basic human dignity and existence to those that need it most. Mar 14, 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM, JW Marriott Salon D.
Ray Kurzweil - Getty Images
Josephine Goube - Copyright © Time Inc. (UK) LTD.
Fei-fei Li - Copyright © 2018 Artificial Intelligence and Magnificent Brain.
Yasmin Green - Photo by Mindy Best - Getty Images for SXSW