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Technology SXSW Robots

It's not all robotics and R2D2 - Technology needs a name

By Richard Appleton |

Blue Rubicon


Opinion article

March 11, 2014 | 5 min read

SXSW is a tech festival like no other, and it has seen a number of talks and seminars around robots, including one by Autodesk CEO Carl Bass. Relaying his thoughts on the session is Richard Appleton, senior consultant of tech PR firm, Blue Rubicon.

People tend to like shiny new things. You could say it’s in our nature. It’s certainly in the nature of people at SXSW here in Austin. Unfortunately, it often takes time for the people who invest billions in making shiny new things to work out how to tell us what they do and why we need them.

It was with this in mind that I heard Autodesk CEO Carl Bass talk about robots and the future. Autodesk make software that helps people makethings – from simulating how a motorbike will work to designing lighting, animation and textures in video games.

Like me, a lot of people here at the festival don’t make things – instead, we help people talk about what they make, whether through advertising, social or the press. But we can still learn a lot from people like Carl Bass.

Bass talked eloquently about how technology evolves faster than our ability to understand and control it. He suggested that technology only became well known once we know what it does for us. Before we give smart technology a name – it often sounds scary. It’s a robot, an algorithm, a feed. Not a thing we know.

With the exception of R2D2, who made a fleeting appearance at SXSW, robots tend to be scary. We’ve all seen videos of Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs jogging on treadmills, or heard skepticism about Google’s self-driving cars.

Bass observed that we call smart new things ‘robots’ when we haven’t found a purpose for them. Just as there is a gap between the people who invent technology and the people who perfect it, there is also a gap between technology emerging and our ability to describe what it does for us.

This gap is important for people working in marketing and communications. Soon, the recent challenges faced by social networks explaining privacy settings, or mobile developers explaining why they need location data will seem trivial. The pace of innovation is accelerating exponentially, enabling technology businesses and brands alike to build new powerful new products that will redefine our viewpoints on privacy, security and safety in a way we simply haven’t seen before.

Elsewhere here at SXSW, Microsoft has been showing the ability of Kinect to read your heart beat from twenty feet away, and technology triallistRobert Scoble has highlighted how the cost of 3D scanning sensors has fallen from $100 dollars to 50 cents in a year. I can’t pretend to understand all of this technology, but it seems obvious that the speed of innovation is accelerating at a rate faster than our ability to communicate what all this new technology does.

Bass argued that once we understand technology, we give it a name. So robots become the Docklands Light Railway, Spotify Discover or your Netflix Recommendations. Once technology has a name – people can can easily tell people why they use it and love it.

Whether we’re working in advertising, media relations or social – we probably need to do a better job of translating technology, robots and algorithms into stuff that people want and need. Bass argued that ‘people don’t speak in APIs’. While there are a fair few marketing agencies who might prefer it if they did – most audiences are never going to be interested in technology.

Bass also used his talk to highlight what could happen if we fail to shrink this gap of understanding, arguing that few industries have ever gone backwards. The one that did – nuclear – did so in part because of fear, misinformation, and misunderstanding.

Every SXSW attendee in recent years has probably claimed that we are ‘about’ to experience dramatic technological change. But it feels like we’re there right now.

Elsewhere at SXSW, Robert Scoble and Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Electronics Association discussed ‘contextual systems’ powered by the phone in your pocket. Imagine a successor to Tinder that knew you were on a train and told you whichpeople sharing your carriage were single, or shopping applications that evolve depending on where you are in a store. These innovations will make the current swathe of apps on our mobile phone screens look like Windows 95.

All of these products and services have the power to transform our lives – or at the very least, fix some first world problems. But whether we’re talking about smart cereal boxes, the future of dating or location aware advertising – we’re reliant on data, algorithms and robots to make them work. In turn, this smart technology is reliant upon how we communicate its value. If we’re going to turn robots into products and services that we name, know and love – we need to work hard to help technologists build trust in their products and explain what they do and how they can help people.

You can follow Aploeton on Twitter @rwja

Technology SXSW Robots

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