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Overheard at SXSW: ‘brands should start small, think big and learn fast with AR’

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By Webb Wright | NY reporter

March 12, 2023 | 9 min read

AI, immersive virtual experiences and the ethical use of data have been major themes at this year’s conference in downtown Austin.

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SXSW 2023 runs from March 10-19 / Adobe Stock

Tens of thousands of people have descended upon downtown Austin, amid temperatures, which on Saturday reached into the high 80s Fahrenheit, for SXSW 2023. Each year, the conference draws experts hailing from a wide variety of fields, as well as entrepreneurs, artists and other professionals who are eager to learn more about the latest trends that are transforming their respective industries and popular culture as a whole.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has, unsurprisingly, been a primary focus at this year’s conference. A quick search for the words “artificial intelligence” on the SXSW website yields information about 20 separate events. One speaker this morning quipped onstage: “Having ‘AI’ in your panel title is always a good idea.”

Immersive technologies like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) – you can check out this glossary to learn more about the differences between those three – have also been heavily emphasized at this year’s SXSW. This echoed the IAB PlayFronts (a conference focused on the intersection between advertising and gaming) in Manhattan earlier this week.

Here are some notable quotes about AI, immersive virtual technologies, data management and other tech-related subjects that have been overheard at this year’s SXSW conference.

“AI is the most transformative technology of our lifetime. The conversation we need to have is … what is the intentional way we can build and deploy AI systems? And what are the principles that we should use to do that?

I wish it was called ‘augmented intelligence’ instead of ‘artificial intelligence’ … we want these tools to help us. Let’s not have AI be done to us … we are in charge here. Let’s not forget that.”

Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, global head of product, Grammarly

“We need to think equitably about the data that’s going into these [AI] models and get all types of people involved … and we need to think about: ‘Should we be doing this?’

Be really intentional about how you approach the development of AI … make sure you’re not excluding anyone unintentionally.”

Ellie Kemery, principal research expert (product inclusion, equitable AI, sustainability), SAP

“Data management is still relatively sloppy across our customer base … it’s a difficult thing to do.”

Roger Hill, principal, Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory

“We have to be able to augment human capacity and creativity to the maximum extent [using AI and machine learning].”

Rachel Grunspan, AI lead, intelligence community, Office of the Director of National Intelligence

“A day in my life is like wrestling with a fiery tiger … VR has helped me feel empowered to know that I can deal with the stresses of life … Through VR I’ve learned breathing … and attention diversion … to help me manage my pain.”

Tom Norris, retired Air Force service member who has been living with chronic pain for more than 20 years

“People forget that it’s much easier to secure the physical world than it is the cyber world … web2 is securing through obscurity … web3 is securing through transparency.”

“If I’m [using] a free tool, I know that my information is the product … What are they doing with that [information] in order to make a profit?”

Emily Herrick, co-founder, FoolProof Labs

“We’ve had the metaverse for a very long time … We’ve had Second Life, we’ve had video games that provide the environment of a very different universe … but now that we’re bringing it into the office space, the question of privacy is becoming huge.”

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John Tsangaris, demand and delivery manager, Threat, Optiv

“We believe that we can power AR everywhere, and make it accessible for anyone, either via an app to download or via the web with no app required … AR is a transitionary technology that will allow people to move between the digital and physical worlds really seamlessly … [the technology] can help tell the story of the world around you.

“The hardware is finally catching up to what the vision for AR [originally] set out to achieve. On the business side, when I talk to brands and businesses, I’m really trying to help them get out of the traditional media thinking and creative strategy for a video or a social media post, and I’ve been helping them think about the storytelling aspects of AR. And that’s when they get really, really excited … The idea is to help these brands get unstuck because they do think it’s about they do think [the technology] is a one-time thing, and the reality is that [AR] can bring people back again and again.”

“When I think about how I want [brands] to get started [with an AR campaign], I want them to start small, think big and learn fast … do your research, know your audience, talk to them and ask them questions.”

Caitlin Lacey, senior director, product marketing, AR, Niantic

“There’s a lot of hocus pocus … good [AI] systems [can] go out of control and start doing things that we did not program them to do. A simple example is if I asked my robot vacuum to suck in the dust to clean my living room, to suck in as much dust as possible. So it will probably clean my living room, but it can also just suck in dust, push it out, suck it up again and throw it out again … I programmed the robot to do something, and it ends up doing something completely different, yet it maximizes the objective function [of cleaning up as much dust as possible] … the cool part is that we are designing these systems, so we can also think about safeguards that can we put in [to ensure these] systems don’t go into some scenarios which are really bad.

“[Brands should not be thinking about] AI systems as a replacement [for human beings], but rather as augmentation … AI systems should be doing things that humans should not be doing. You don’t want humans to go in mines that are dangerous for them. You don't want them to be in a warehouse lifting heavy boxes all the time. You don’t want old people to be spending their time cleaning dishes. These tasks are very physical. The same thing applies to work: You don’t want to be mindlessly going through Excel sheets … If we think of AI as augmenting our capabilities, we can move closer towards the goal of letting humans do what they’re best at, and thinking of AI as tools for doing all the things that we don’t want to do.

“Think about people that have dogs; we don’t really understand dogs, but we can still have a good relationship with them and they can be useful to us. [In the same way,] I definitely do think there’s an opportunity where AI systems could become useful, and where we are not afraid of them, even though we don’t completely understand them.”

Pulkit Agrawal, assistant professor, department of electrical engineering and computer science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

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