AI, psychedelics and web3 shine bright at SXSW 2023
Want to know what everyone’s talking about in Austin right now during tech’s biggest conversation? Read on.
Nearly 300,000 people are expected to attend SXSW 2023. / Adobe Stock
Austin is heating up. Literally, in the sense that temperatures in the Texas capital soared into the high 80s during the past weekend. And figuratively, in the sense that the city’s downtown area has become an absolute fireball of energy during SXSW 2023.
Canceled in 2020 and relegated to an online-only event in 2021 due to the pandemic, SXSW appears to be back in all its glory. Just shy of 278,700 people attended the conference and festival last year, according to a report from SXSW, and even more (around 300,000) are expected to flood into this year’s event, which runs through March 19. Lines at certain panels (especially those featuring celebrity speakers), evening entertainment events and Starbucks have been prodigiously long.
The Drum has been on the ground in downtown Austin for the past few days attending events and speaking with experts hailing from a variety of fields. Here are three trends we’ve noticed during the opening days of SXSW 2023:
1. Web3: backburnered, but not forgotten
In 2022, web3 – commonly described as the next evolutionary phase of the internet, in which information is stored and shared via blockchain technology – was to a very large degree the center of attention across adland.
This year, due to the much-publicized “crypto winter” and recent advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), web3 seems to have been all but forgotten across the marketing space. But the technology has been an important topic of conversation here at SXSW. Now that the hype surrounding web3 has subsided a bit, brands and experts seem ready to begin separating the wheat from the chaff. The important question no longer seems to be: “How can we deploy a web3 campaign as soon as possible?”, but rather: “How can we deploy a web3 campaign safely, effectively and in a manner which will provide genuine benefits to our audience?”
The blockchain is also still being positioned by some as the future of data security. “People forget that it’s much easier to secure the physical world than it is the cyber world,” Emily Herrick, co-founder of FoolProof Labs, said during a panel on Saturday. “Web3 is securing through transparency.”
Make no mistake: innovations and investments in the web3 space are continuing to proceed at a rapid pace.
2. Psychedelics are on the tips of everyone’s tongues (metaphorically speaking)
As you may have noticed, psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA have become a media darling over the past couple of years, as the research surrounding this class of drugs has continued to demonstrate their enormous therapeutic potential.
Despite the strict drug laws here in Texas, SXSW has clearly and enthusiastically jumped on board the psychedelic bandwagon. Some here at the festival have been joking that the organizers of SXSW needed a new hot topic to help them bounce back from the downturn in the NFT market (NFTs were a major focus at last year’s festival), so they embraced psychedelics.
“Women in Psychedelics Talk Psychedelics for Women”; “Psychedelics for First Responders”; “Beyond the Hype: The Business of Psychedelics 2.0”; “Psychedelic Tech: Consciousness in the Modern Age”; “The Psychedelic Renaissance: High Hopes and Rising Criticisms”; this is just a small sample of the panels focused on psychedelics at this year’s SXSW.
3. Creating a happy and healthy marriage between humans and AI
Given how steeped popular culture has been in films, TV shows and novels that envision apocalyptic AI scenarios, people can be forgiven for being a bit nervous about how new and remarkably impressive AI models like ChatGPT are going to evolve. Are these really just benign tools? Or are we creating a technology that – as Elon Musk has famously warned – could be more dangerous than nuclear weapons?
Like most paradigm-shifting technologies, AI is almost certainly going to be a double-edged sword. As futurists like Neal Stephenson have taken pains to point out, what matters is not necessarily the technologies themselves, but rather how we as human beings choose to design and wield them. It’s been heartening to hear a number of panels at SXSW that have discussed the potential dangers of AI and how they can be mitigated to ensure that this technology is something that benefits humanity.
As Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, global head of product at Grammarly, phrased it during a panel at a brewery in downtown Austin on Saturday: “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?"
Chowdhury said repeatedly during the panel that he prefers the term “augmented intelligence” to “artificial intelligence,” believing that the former emphasizes the power of algorithms to enhance, rather than replace, the creativity and capabilities of human beings. “We want these tools to help us,” he said. ”Let’s not have AI be done to us … we are in charge here. Let’s not forget that.”
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