Ahead of all the innovation, entertainment and ideation at SXSW Sydney, the opening insights into revolutionary technologies from futurist Amy Webb held strong anticipation. Claire Dunton from Luminary explores the content.
I challenge anyone to think about SXSW in Austin Texas, without attaching Amy Webb and her prophetic talks to your perception. Annually presenting the headline or featured talk at the 38-year-old festival, Webb is an institution, backed by her position as a futurist, author, professor and CEO of Future Institute Today.
When Luminary decided to send 33 of its staff to the first SXSW outside of Texas, the countdown was on to SXSW Sydney where Amy Webb would open the tech conference with the first keynote of the festival. As a marketer working with digital designers, UX designers and developers, I was keen to hear what was on the horizon for our industry and get an idea of the issues that futurists were getting stuck into.
Here are five insights Amy Webb shared with the crowd of 2500 at SXSW Sydney:
The line between machine and human is blurring
AI is an umbrella term that encompasses many different types of technologies, so it’s important to remember that we are talking about more than ChatGPT when we talk about AI. Webb believes that we are heading to a moment in time where we become data (gesture recognition, voice recognition) in our mission to remove more friction in our lives and work. However, what happens when these automated systems continue to make decisions for us, will we not lose agency? The universal rush to AI means the line between machine and human is more difficult to see.
The reliance on cloud providers
Throughout Webb’s keynote, a point that she continued to circle back to was the need for cloud services, insisting that this was the story that everyone missed. According to Webb, in order to make these AI systems work effectively, we require GPUs (Graphics Processing Units)… in fact, we need tens of thousands of them. If you had thought that OpenAI was open source, it was originally intended to be, but now there are all kinds of partnerships happening with big tech companies and cloud services are a high priority.
This is a concern because we see Microsoft and Amazon coming to the table, consolidating their power. We are not seeing a reordering in power structures and leaders with the onset of AI, but rather companies with powerful tools are aligning with tech companies who are also cloud providers, consolidating power and becoming more entrenched.
More homogeneity, less hallucinations
When ChatGPT first became available, there were concerns over the hallucinations we were seeing, which were nonsensical outputs based on patterns that the LLM (large language model). Now, we have seen these systems go the other way with Webb describing it as having a grocery store the size of a football field, but all you can buy are three different fruits. The concern is that the future that is being shaped will be ‘buttoned-up’ due to these tech giants not wanting to face public scrutiny and PR drama, and so we see a watering down of content.
Should we feel optimistic or worried about the future?
Webb believes that it is easier to talk about the future of AI in these two binary outcomes – optimistic or catastrophic. The truth is, that there are countless models that could be the reality, and this is what her company, Future Today Institute, works to create and convey to leaders and clients. The optimistic framing is that big tech companies are better regulated and the average person is self-selecting their data.
Our lives can be materially different and made worse in ways that are largely invisible to us in the beginning. Webb provided an analogy of papercuts, small and relatively painless when you have one. She then prompted the audience to imagine having thousands of paper cuts on every inch of the body, and suddenly it’s hard to do the things you once could, and it’s hard to think of anything else. We are still alive but our lives are completely different to what they once were.
Screens won’t be here forever
Understandably, this was a concept that was very interesting to the tech crowd. Through her trend analysis and futurist work, Amy Webb believes that personal device screens will eventually be phased out, replaced by wearable accessories that have continuous cameras and can assess our surroundings and lifestyle, making optimised suggestions. Imagine sitting down for a meal, and then your personal, wearable device suggests a different meal based on the sleep you had last night, the weather outside, how much exercise you have done that day and what your duties are for the rest of the day. Webb says that these products are well into the research and production phase, and will go beyond the smart glasses we have seen teased by Google and Meta.
Claire Dunton is a marketing content creator at Luminary. Cover image attributed to Luminary.