Four Glimpses into the Future of Tech from SXSW

By: Hana Hiratsuka

Thanks to Citizen, I was able to holler “Howdy, Austin!” as I hopped off a plane to attend five days of innovative music, film, and interactive fun at my first South by Southwest conference. I was on the hunt to discover how the newest technology will change the way we interact with the world.

With three conferences—Music, Film, and Interactive—SXSW transforms Austin into an international hub of ideas, a testament to culture and innovation (and crowds) for a few weeks each March. I decided to spend the majority of my time in the intelligent future and health tracks. The intelligent future featured topics that took a big-picture, conceptual look at the future of the tech industry, while the health sessions showed how our relationship with the healthcare industry is on the precipice of change thanks to new technologies.

Below are four of my favorite takeaways from the sessions I attended.

1. Bots are hot (but also just the beginning)

Every company wants a chatbot.

Currently, bots are one of the hottest ways to meet consumers where they are. But they’re not just being used to deliver better customer service, they’re building a foundation for the deployment and evolution of artificial intelligence.

If the last decade’s major tech breakthrough was the mobile device, we’ll likely see the digital personal assistant perfected in this next decade. Allison Swope cited that 10% of bot users have already told a bot: “I love you.” Our willingness to connect with tech will become more apparent as machine learning and AI advances to master the complexity of human speech.

Conversation is innately human and, hopefully, breakthroughs in natural language processing will greatly enhance this technology. Our budding relationships with bots will continue to evolve from task-oriented needs to unguided chitchat and conversation—perhaps even blossoming into friendships. Be on the lookout for more chat-first products and UI-less, speech-oriented interactions with these emerging technologies.

2. Hire a philosophy major

One of the more surprising recurring themes throughout the intelligent future sessions was that, now more than ever, arts and humanities will play a critical role in creating and guiding us to a tech-enabled future in which humanity will thrive. We’re at a moment in history when we not only have the ability to track vast amounts of data (personal and otherwise), we have the ability to store it. Through AI, we can even start to understand it in exciting new ways.

Of course, we will need data analysts, but the potential application of this data will call into question ethical issues. The need to answer philosophical questions such as “What does it mean to be human?” will become ever-more pressing.

Hollywood has perpetuated a narrative of technology as an uncontrollable force that eventually destroys humanity—and, at times, this future is very easy to imagine. Now, we have the opportunity to define what it means to be human as well as what our relationship with tech should look like.

3. Health gets personal

Everyone who has ever used the healthcare system knows it’s complicated. But tech is powering a revolution in the industry meant to undo much of that complexity. For example, telehealth sessions will allow us to check in with care providers more frequently, regardless of where we are, and course-correct treatments without the hold-up of in-office appointments. From a doctor’s perspective, a video call to someone in their living room starts to build empathy and create a more holistic view of the patient.

With these changes come the need to educate and train doctors to understand how technology will help them forge new kinds of relationships with their patients. Right now, academia trains doctors for an antiquated healthcare system—not how to be at the forefront, tracking chronic lifestyle diseases and other social trends in health. As population health data emerges, doctors will be able to more effectively toggle between large-scale health trends and individual patient care, allowing for a healthcare journey that’s more personal, proactive, and effective. Like all healthcare change, though, the devil is in the details.

4. We’re about to go where no one has gone before: the brain.

One of the most incredible panels at SXSW was “HI + AI: The Future of Intelligence,” a discussion among Adam Cheyer, Bryan Johnson and Reshma Shetty on the powerful combination of human and artificial intelligence. Biology is the most intelligent natural system. Through AI, we’ve started to tap into the potential of coding and programing life itself. At the same time, scientists are on a journey to understand our own personal central computing system: the brain.

We can already give people superhuman hearing through cochlear implants and out-of-body movement through EEG, so what will happen when we pinpoint the source of intelligence and have the ability to harness it? Even with the current state of AR and VR, we are becoming masters of our environment with the ability to create alternate and virtual realities. Plus, we already know the potential of HI + AI working hand-in-hand: just look at your daily search engine searches to see this interaction at play.

Discoveries about our brain alongside technological advances will allow us to merge HI + AI further and explore realities and perceptions that are not currently humanly possible. Get ready for some (literally) mind-blowing advances in the coming decades.

In my five days at SXSW, there was never a dull moment. For anyone even slightly susceptible to FOMO, this was a blessing and a curse. At every turn, there was an opportunity to interact with a new piece of tech or someone who was down to rave about their new startup. But, as always, it’s good to be home.