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Machine Learning & AI - SXSW Highlights

Published on Saturday, 23rd March 2019

If you missed our latest Bristol Media event, fear not! Izzy, our Junior Content Apprentice, has compressed all the best bits into this quick blog, read on to hear about the SXSW 2019 experience…

Bristol Media Chair, Chris Thurling, attended South by Southwest Conference & Festival (SXSW) for his 5th year in a row last week. Held in Austin, Texas, SXSW celebrates the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries. It is hugely successful and was attended by over 280,000 people in 2018!

On Tuesday, Bristol Media hosted a ‘lunchtime digest’ where Chris shared his highlights from the event along with Ann Hiatt (former chief of staff for Google and Amazon and SXSW speaker) and Nicholas Blake (Head of Data and Digital Operations at Armadillo). Here’s what we took away:

The user to the used

After Chris’s first SXSW visit back in 2015, he left the event in a happy tech bubble, excited and optimistic for the future of technology. Fast forward to 2019, and it seems a dominant theme throughout the conference was the ethical concerns now surrounding this industry, and it has people anxious. An eye-opening talk for Chris was Douglas Rushkoff’s, ‘Team Human’. In his talk, Douglas spoke about how the internet was ‘idealistic’ in the beginning, but it now serves the stock market more than us. We have gone from being the user to the used and are close to automating ourselves out of existence.

Nothing extraordinary comes from your comfort zone

Ann on the other hand is encouraged by the opportunities AI and machine learning offer and the overarching message she took away from her time at SXSW was to remember the human aspect of technology. In other words, we still need good, thoughtful people to harness all that potential for the better. 

As well as a run-down of her own SXSW talk 'Grit, Reinvention, and Pivoting for Success', Ann shared with us some of the tips she took from a talk by Susan Fowler, former employee of Uber. You might recognise Susan as the woman who influenced how Uber and other Silicon Valley companies now treat sexual harassment in the workplace. Susan wanted to remind us all of a few things:

  1. There is still more good in the world than bad
  2. Change needs to be exemplified from the top
  3. You don’t need to be an activist to change the world
  4. Change happens over a lifetime
  5. The power held by a story.

Ann then prompted us to ponder on the idea that 'nothing extraordinary comes from your comfort zone' and that we need to ask ourselves the right questions when it comes to machine learning and AI. 

AI is a tool

Nicholas Blake thought it was really interesting to hear what the experts were saying about artificial intelligence and machine learning, now that it is no longer science fiction and is becoming seamlessly integrated in our lives. A talk by Cassie Kozyrkov, Chief Decision Scientist at Google, inspired a different outlook on AI; that it is just a tool, it is as safe as the people who design and monetise it. Nick explains it in an analogy: if you work on something with another person, is that collaboration? If you use a ruler to draw a straight line, is that collaboration? AI is more similar to the ruler than the person, because without us to input the data, it can’t function.

What did you think about our lunchtime digest, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of technology? If you missed it, follow us on Twitter and Facebook or subscribe to our newsletter to hear about future events!