Comment: SXSW key speaker takeaways by We Are Social


Artificial Intelligence was a major discussion on the speakers agenda at SXSW (South by Southwest), the annual creative conference and festival celebrating the convergence of tech, film, music, education, and culture, which wrapped over the weekend in Texas.

With AI now reaching increasingly pure technology and into the creative field, we wanted to know what were some of the most inspiring talks in SXSW 2023?

Thankfully, global agency We Are Social had a trio of experts on the ground in Texas, and they’ve shared what caught their attention last week …

WAS at SXSW: Lisa Austin (left), Simon Richings (centre), Pedro Garlaschi de Sousa (right).


The Universal Intern and Partner: How Generative AI is Changing How We Work, from Wired Kevin Kelly, selected by Simon Richings, UK Executive Creative Director… 

How to think about our new AI overlords

Of all the talks I attended, the most generous – in terms of the sheer volume of interesting things – was the one on generative AI given by Kevin Kelly, the dubiously titled ‘Senior Maverick’ at Wired.

His presentation had so much in it, but whereas other speakers on AI concentrated on the spectacular (wow, look what machine learning can do now), Kelly’s focus was how we should think about this tech in relation to ourselves.

He suggested there are four ways of looking at AI tools.

First, we could think of them as slaves – which gets across their utility but, as Kelly pointed out, is ‘incredibly corrosive to our humanity.’

Or we could think of them as pets. In some cases this might be okay, but possibly undermines what they can achieve for us.

A third option is to think of them as spirits (or gods). This is the unhelpful, ‘evil robots taking over’ way of thinking.

But the model he recommends, is to think of these emerging artificial intelligences as smart aliens. They’re clever. They’re on our side. But they’re fundamentally from another world.

We can have a great relationship with them, but they won’t ever be exactly like us.

Animation’s New Horizon: The Real-Time Revolution, from Patrick Osborne & Pablo Colapinto, selected by Pedro Garlaschi de Sousa, Senior Creative Technologist 

The intersection of craft, storytelling and technology

The brilliant creative director Patrick Osborne showcased two of his recent projects and some of his experiments with real-time render technology for the creative industry.

Both projects were really inspiring, where you could clearly notice the quality of technical knowledge backed up by beautiful storytelling. 

The first project, a collaboration with the Thurman White Academy of the Performing Arts, uses realtime technology for a kid’s play during lockdown.

The second is a story of a teen who is transported into moments of other people’s lives by songs played on an old tape deck made using Unreal Engine.

Pablo Colapinto shared the amazing augmented reality project made for Google in partnership with the band Gorillaz.

Narratives across social media are still a big subject, from the consistency of content generation, audience understanding and social vehicles.

As someone from a more technical field, talks like this that married storytelling and technology elements really drew me in.

Future gazing: SXSW speakers gazed into our AI future.

“The Other AI: The Rise of Artificial Intimacy & What it Means for “Us”, from Psychotherapist Esther Perel, selected by Lisa Austin, Business Director. 

AI and Human Emotion 

Human relations are way too complex for AI systems to grasp. Perel told the story of a patient who was unable to get an appointment with Perel, so created an AI bot for himself called aiEsther to listen to his feelings and give him advice.

He found aiEsther gave him clarity about his relationship issues but could take things no further because she had no backstory to his life to draw from – no personal experience or feelings, no ability to go off-script or read expressions to create that deeper connection.

She touched on how our hyper-connected lives prevent us from being truly present in our real relationships.

Our increasing addiction to screens has caused a spike in artificial intimacy (“the other AI”) where we’re physically with one another but not actually present.

We’ve normalised disrupted connections and they’ve become socially acceptable. “We have come to accept distracted attention as enough, and it is not”.

Young adults, especially boys and men, are disproportionately impacted by huge rises in levels of loneliness.