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Overheard at SXSW: How the festival's big talking points will impact marketers

By Matt Law, chief operating officer

March 18, 2016 | 7 min read

The thing about going to a huge event like SXSW is that it can soon feel overwhelming and everything begins to wash over you. Whilst the ‘experiencing self’ revels in the moment and inspirational sheepdip of ideas, the 'remembering self' is left only with that which sticks most readily, the stories, the anecdotes and the salacious gossip.

Here are some highlights that struck a chord with me and the team at AnalogFolk.

"The idea that the robots will create a jobs armageddon is ridiculous"

Jerry Kaplan, Friday, 'Robot Armageddon: AI, jobs and inequality'

The futurist Jerry Kaplan gave a talk on Friday which was reported in the Guardian about the coming ‘robot armageddon’. One key point that wasn’t reported is his claim that automation over time has increased the total number of jobs. He compared how farm jobs in 1800 occupied 90 per cent of the total workforce in the US, and this has decreased to 2 per cent nowadays – is everyone out of work? Of course they are not, the economy has reallocated their energy to jobs that did not exist before. So the interesting question is – what are the 90 per cent of the jobs today that in the future will only take 2 per cent of the time.

A lot of focus tends to be on which jobs will not be affected by automation, but a more interesting question is what will be the jobs of the future? He proposed they are ones that

  • Inherently involve a personal touch
  • Have an intrinsic demonstration of skill
  • involve person to person interactions

"Humans and machines as partners"

Rayid Ghani, Friday, 'Big data and AI, Sci-Fi vs everyday applications'

This session that opened the festival for us focused on the potential for data-enabled artificial intelligence (AI) to partner effectively with humans. One point that stuck was that humans are very good at rationalising – coming up with a plausible story for why something is the way it is. In many circumstances this is a great strength, but we then become stuck to the story – wedged to the first one or two concepts that have been generated.

AI systems do not have that issue and one thing that can be very useful with their use is coming up with lots of plausible approaches to be reviewed by humans. These strengths and weaknesses are complementary – in many senses humans do not make good decisions (half are below average), but AI can balance out our poor decisions if we can come to see them as partners.

“85 per cent of women surveyed in Silicon Valley have been told they are too aggressive at work"

Trae Vassalo, Sunday, 'The Elephant in the Valley'

The Elephant in the Valley was a survey of more than 200 high-powered women in the tech industry in Silicon Valley which demonstrated that many women in the tech industry are subject to very significant amounts of both overt and indirect bias in the workplace. The most insidious of which seemed to be what was termed the ‘goldilocks effect’, where around 85 per cent of women had been told they were too aggressive at work, while 50 per cent have been told that they’re too passive. Meaning at least 35 per cent of women in positions of power have been told they are both too aggressive AND too passive.

The full document is well worth a sobering read given the current discussions and allegations around JWT in the US, our industry is seemingly no further ahead.

"'Rational decision making' is value based, 'emotional decision making' is values based"

James Thompson, Sunday, 'Heads and Hearts: Consumer engagement where it counts'

In a fascinating collision between branding experts and neuroscientists, the physical processes of the mind, and the elements of how branding works, were compared and contrasted across a series of case studies.

Neuroscientist James Thompson talked about the effects of oxytocin in the brain – the ‘love’ hormone. In a segment where he described much of human decision making as fundamentally irrational, oxytocin was described as the physical result of having your human values triggered, which increases feelings of bonding, trust and generosity. In this situation, you as a person are more likely to be persuaded. Crucially, it can be released by experiencing it for yourself, or even by interaction with other humans experiencing it.

"Why does everything need to have a drone nowadays?"

Overheard, Sunday, 'Giving the tricorder life fifty years after Star Trek'

One fascinating talk we attended was looking at the X-Prize for a working “Tricorder” - the medical diagnostic device in Star Trek. There is a $10 million dollar prize for the first hand held device that can diagnose 13 common illnesses. The team we saw were confident this prize would be claimed within the next year. The front runner solution involves taking a drop of blood from the subject, loading it into a drone and flying it to a lab for the blood tests to be undertaken remotely. Of course it needs a drone, everything cool needs a drone.

"Now that we can do anything we want, we are immune to spectacle and it is the human story that matters"

JJ Abrams, Monday, 'The eyes of robots and murderers'

In one of the standout sessions of the festival, JJ Abrams talked about how now the technology exists to achieve practically anything, and visual storytelling is not limited by practical constraints any more, it has created a surfeit of spectacle, so we should use it as sparingly as possible for impact. The only thing that can really create the connection with an audience is a powerful and relatable story. "The challenge is that no matter what technology you are using, you want it to be invisible, you want the audience to have an experience that is as effortless as possible."

"The biggest products of the next 20 years haven’t been invented yet"

Kevin Kelly, Monday, '12 Inevitable tech forces that will shape our future'

The founder of Wired magazine spoke about the 12 trends that will endure over the coming years. One thing that was particularly striking is that he believes the biggest products of the next 20 years haven’t been invented yet and will be driven by these key trends, most notably the arrival of artificial intelligence. His belief is that AI will be a utility like electricity. A few big companies will provide it and if you need it you will buy some of it from them like electricity. The dawn of the electrical age came from adding electric power to existing processes and tools – so his tip is that the biggest startups will be service / tool “x" + artificial intelligence to deliver it faster, better or cheaper.

Matt Law is chief operating officer of AnalogFolk

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