Keeping pace with change is an obsession that many of us share and with that in my mind, I decided to spend day two at SXSW learning about how others are steering, managing, or simply coping with change.
Artwork created by AI
The promise of greater productivity
The first panel was entitled Navigating a Rapidly Changing and Connected World and Beth Comstock, Vice Chairman at GE and Steve Case, Co-Founder of AOL offered their views on how entrepreneurs will use technology, data, and AI to affect the most fundamental aspects of our lives. Since nearly everything around us can connect to and deliver data, fuelling insights faster than ever before, the promise of greater productivity and efficiency from traditionally slow-moving industries (manufacturing, healthcare, food, education) will soon come to fruition. Partnerships are seen as the key to unleashing that promise, but it’s partnerships between unlikely bedfellows; namely nimble start-ups and large corporations. The former brings agility, relevancy, and innovation to the party whilst the latter offers access to global markets, scalability, and an intimate understanding of public policy and regulation. The deep knowledge that both sides possess is critical for shared success but steering a course between their distinct mindsets (start-ups ‘imagine’ whilst Corporations ‘manage’) will likely prove challenging. However, they must dance together in partnership for only then will innovation extend beyond the R&D lab and have widespread impact upon corporations and industry. Concerns around automation and the impact upon society and the economy was raised and both speakers agreed that forward planning was required by both corporations and government to prepare people for that change. This was a topic that was revisited in later panels as the SXSW community expressed their concern around the potentially significant dislocation that may be felt if we do not prepare for an increasingly automated future.
Collaboration amongst unlikely partners
Next up was a fantastic example of collaboration amongst unlikely partners. Google’s Ivan Poupyrev and Levi’s Paul Dillinger shared their story of Project Jacquard in the session Ditch the Screens: The Ubiquity of Connectivity. They explained what happens when extraordinary technological expertise meets denim manufacturing experience. What begins as a series of must-haves on either side ends up as a ruthless and shared focus on the absolute fundamentals, and in this case their vision was to create a garment with authentic technology at its core. Once they committed to creating a piece of clothing that would allow a cyclist to commute through San Francisco safely, the other considerations fell into place. The distraction of screens was removed, including all unnecessary functions and interruptions, and they innovated beyond the screen to create the Jaquard, Levi’s Commuter Trucker jacket that connects directly to maps and music services. With the data and feedback that will be received by the garment, the expectation is that those wearing it will ultimately definitely how Jacquard evolves in the future.
Finally, we moved into the ominous sounding session, The Future of Jobs is Dark and Full of Terror (Is it though?). It centered around the impact of AI and automation on society. With the speakers hailing from organisations as diverse as the French Digital Council, Brandwatch (social listening and analytics), Dataperformers (AI and machine learning), and M-Files (information management), the viewpoint ran the gamut of highly optimistic (automation will free us of laborious tasks so we can strategize more and take time to play the piano) to pessimism (there simply won’t be enough jobs available for many millions of people around the world and this could seriously impact our sense of purpose and even our dignity). Whilst concepts such as the universal wage are increasingly being discussed, and re-training and skill development initiatives will certainly be needed, the pace at which these initiatives will need to be rolled out is daunting. Moreover, could or should a tariff or tax be levied upon products made by AI? Would that even be possible and would the regulation come into effect? Which governments would impose it? Aside from France, which governments and major global tech companies are making it priority to explain to the public how AI and automation is going to effect the communities, societies, and countries in which they operate? Many questions were posed, but there were no clear or easy answers. So whilst this session was certainly no horror film, there was no resolution and that in itself is cause for concern.
My takeaways from the day were that it is more important than ever to be ready for change. Be prepared to learn from others, to dance with other disciplines, and expose yourself to topics in which you’re not an expert. Get out of your comfort zone and be present. Ask not only the difficult questions, but also the different ones. And be prepared to get involved.