Tech Artificial Intelligence AI

Three takeaway tech trends from SXSW 2024


By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

March 15, 2024 | 8 min read

We spent a whirlwind of a week in Austin so you didn’t have to.

SXSW 2024

SXSW 2024 was held in Austin, Texas, from March 08 - 15. / Adobe Stock

Downtown Austin, Texas, has been a blur of frenetic activity this week. Amid the sounds of electric guitar riffs oozing out of seemingly every dive bar and a fleet of wheeled delivery robots rolling through the sidewalks – giving the area a kind of sci-fi western vibe – many thousands of conference-goers gathered in the heart of the city for nine days of music, films, networking and panel discussions.

SXSW bills itself as a hub where minds operating at the bleeding edge of various fields can come together to discuss innovation, creativity and collaboration.

This year, AI has been the dominant theme of the knowledge-sharing happening on the ground in Austin. Of course, woven into the many conversations with industry leaders of every stripe were other important tech subjects, too.

With that in mind, here are three of our biggest tech takeaways from the past five days in Austin:

AI pessimism and optimism collide

There have been a lot of grandiose claims made about AI on both sides of the dystopian-utopian spectrum in recent months. Some experts regard it as humankind’s most dangerous invention yet, while others say that such apocalyptic thinking is misguided and that preventing its potential harm is as easy as flipping a switch. Bright-eyed optimists, meanwhile, say it will usher in a new golden era of abundance and leisure for humanity.

Many of those differing viewpoints have been voiced at SXSW over the past five days.

The technologists who stand to profit from AI are, unsurprisingly, often the most vocal advocates of its potential benefits. In a keynote presentation yesterday, Dell Technologies founder and CEO Michael Dell described himself as “a big technology optimist” and said that AI is another step in humanity’s ongoing drive towards technological innovation, which has “always been about enabling human potential, making us healthier, making us safer [and] making us more successful.”

Others aren’t so sure. Some AI experts worry that excessive enthusiasm for the technology could make it more difficult to realistically map out its potential harms and practical applications, while others have been more direct in their belief that it poses a real, immediate danger to society.

“When it comes to AI, my general vibe is concerned to very concerned,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold told audience members during a Tuesday panel called “Elections in the Age of AI: New Tech’s Impacts on Democracy,” which focused largely on the increasing presence of deepfakes in the political media landscape.

SXSW’s ties with the US military attract scrutiny

Roughly 80 artists, panelists and event sponsors have pulled out of SXSW this year in protest of the event’s sponsorship by the US Army, which has also supported the Israeli government’s war in Gaza.

Some musical artists at the festival this year used their platform to protest the event’s ties with the military. At a live performance from British rock band Dry Cleaning last night, the lead singer paused the show to read a statement from her notebook, in which she specifically condemned the festival’s ties with American aerospace and defense company RTX Corporation, formerly Raytheon, which makes weapons and components of fighter jets that have been used by the Israeli military. (A RTX subsidiary company called Collins Aerospace sponsored two events during SXSW Pitch, a startup showcase hosted by the conference, according to reporting from The Guardian).

Irish rap group Kneecap posted a statement on X last Sunday explaining that their decision to pull out of SXSW was made “in solidarity with the people of Palestine and to highlight the unacceptable deep links the festival has to weapons companies and the US military who at this very moment are enabling a genocide and famine against a trapped population.”

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Brain-computer interface (BCI) tech is gaining traction

The idea of a wearable device that collects information based on the electrical signals in a user’s brain in real-time still probably feels very science-fictiony to most people. But the tech seems to be closer to becoming a market reality that one might imagine.

On Tuesday, I met with Adam Eizenberg-Molnari, co-founder of a company called Neurable, which is working on BCI-equipped over-ear headphones that can track your level of focus on a particular task, thereby theoretically helping you to learn how to enhance your concentration.

I was allowed to demo headphones, which have not yet been released. They were much more comfortable than having a bunch of electrodes stuck to your head, as would be required in an electroencephalogram (EEG). As I focused on a string of numbers appearing on a screen, a graph tracked my levels of focus as my mind homed in on and occasionally wandered out of the task.

While they’re still in their infancy, BCI devices could soon become a much more common feature of everyday life.

The hype around the tech has been growing in the weeks since Elon Musk’s Neuralink implanted its first chip into a human brain last month. The billionaire Tesla CEO and mercurial owner of X said on the platform that the subject was “recovering well” and said early results indicated “promising” results.

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