By Omar Bakhshi, Creative Director - Experience Design at Ogilvy UK


This is my 4th visit to SXSW, and the first in 3 years. During my hiatus I have observed from afar and found (in my opinion anyway) that the festival has moved from being a real bellwether in innovation, technology and design — to becoming rather mundane and repetitive. This visit I was pleasantly surprised to see while the technologies discussed are the same (A.I. has certainly been on the agenda for a while now) the direction of travel for these technologies is now taking shape.

As a result much of the debate was the role of design in steering the course of how we should be applying technology to make a meaningful impact in the world. Here I will outline the 3 key trends from the conference. Discussing the responsibility of design as a practice to ensure that everyone benefits from the advances in technology and conversely how if we get it wrong we may be heading for catastrophe…

1. The Paradox of Humanity & Technology

“When we reach the singularity and machines start processing all the data we have ever created, the biases in all that data means that ’A.I.’ will inherently be flawed”
- John Maeda, Design in Tech Report

The predictions around A.I.'s evolution towards ‘the singularity’ straddles two extremes between the doomsayers and transhumanists. On one hand, it represents an existential threat to humanity as we know it — on the other we will coexist albeit with signification ethical and societal impact.

While this played out again, the focus was more on the role of humans (and specifically design) in setting the direction of travel for A.I.'s evolution. There are already many and well documented cases of biases emerging in machine learning as the data it uses in inherently biased.

The outcome will likely be that humans and A.I. will evolve together, but in a divergent way; the advantages of one (empathy), supporting the other (automation and speed). History has shown us how ‘the shadow side’ of human centred design can usurp technology that was originally designed to do good. Now the stakes are so perilous, design — industrial and product design in particular, were seen as playing an increasingly important role in managing that risk.

Google’s AI based translater ran into trouble when translating Turkish (a gender neutral language)

Key outtakes:

1. A.I. and humans will evolve, diverge and complement one another.

2. A.I. will be have inherent biases, humans will become more empathetic to reduce these biases.

3. The risk and reward is high but the outlook is not bleak if design takes ownership of the agenda.

2. Meet your listening, talking, emotional, self driving car.

“43% of people admit talking to their car, 42% name their car.”

We have a complicated, unique and multi faceted emotional relationship with our vehicles. It is this relationship that will act as a catalyst for the uptake of many new innovations such as voice, primarily due to necessity and also due to our predisposition to have a conversation with our cars.

The conversation then shifted to automation, and how the in-car experience will need to be designed to respond to our emotions. While technology will get better at reading our emotions in more detail and in real time. However, current studies into emotions were considered too simplistic, plus how much we really dial personality up or down depends on the context of the driver (mode of transport, environment, other passengers etc).

Key outtakes:

1. The in car experience is the ideal sandbox to design and test how we will interact with new and emerging technologies such as voice and emotionally responsive A.I.

2. The current field of study into emotion is overly simplistic and this will need to evolve to consider more nuanced emotions and consider other factors that effect emotion such as culture.

3. Dial personality up or down based on mode of transport, how connected the car is to other technology ecosystems, and environmental factors.

3. Blockchain will be hugely disruptive but not because of virtual currency

“We’re trying to move to a system where the Web is completely decentralised, dis intermediating a lot of middle men who add nothing to the value chain of the industries they operate in… Even government, it will be much more efficient for resources to be shared amongst people trying to solve big world problems than investing in governments through taxes they can choose how to spend.”

Joseph Lubin

When Satoshi Nakamoto invented Bitcoin in 2009, he created two other things — the idea of ‘virtual economics’ and blockchain. Most of the PR and noise has been around the rise of virtual currencies, but Lubin talked more about the underlying power of Blockchain to create a new kind of Internet.

Blockchain is essentially a secure repository of digital information which can be accessed publicly but not copied. The data includes transactional data but also any data that can have attributable value, such as information about a person, history of a products manufacture, the amount of times a piece of media has been downloaded or consumed and so on.

The Ethereum project has sought to create new and open protocols on blockchain allowing for third party developers to create their own applications. Decentralising the decision making and potential of blockchain into the development community. The ambition is that through this democratising force, companies and communities — large or small can come together to share resources in a secure manner without all the middle men traditionally associated with the supply chain of many industries.

One area where Ethereum blockchain is widely adopted is copyright protection.

Kodak, for example, launched an image rights platform in January called KodakOne based on Ethereum blockchain. A similar platform is Ujo Music, an Ethereum-powered music rights marketplace.

The Ujo Music

Key outtakes.

1. The Web is entering a new phase where it is becoming decentralised and the power is moving from a few smaller players into larger ones.

2. Applications developed on blockchain will disrupt the entire supply chain of businesses as we currently know them.

3. This will open up complete new ecosystems to design for that dis intermediate governments and the current framework of legislation.

A few final footnotes…

The agenda for innovation will need to become democratic

A shout out for Sadiq Khan who owned the stage during his keynote, claiming London is open for innovation, but that technology companies need to play by the same rules as any other entity. Ending the debate by claiming the public and private policy are just as important in setting the agenda as a handful of innovators to ensure we all benefit from the new technological revolution.

Keep an eye on India and Gen B(older)

Emerging markets are not arriving, they are becoming the design powerhouses we need to start watching. John Maeda talked at length about the growing number of non-traditional (and largely ignored) technology adopters that represent a huge opportunity for businesses to design for.

I got to meet a Jedi

True to form one of the best elements of SXSW is serendipity and the element of surprise. After the talk by Sadiq Khan and getting uncomfortable in my chair, I debated for a while whether to stay for the next talk with Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi. With 15 minutes to go, he invited out a special guest…