SXSW 2018: VR, AI and the Chicken Man of Rainey Street

Austin, Texas.

People. Lanyards. Plaid shirts. Beards. Blouses. High heels. Power suits. Jeans. Leather jackets. The smell of smoke. Roasted meats. The constant thrum of music. The constant bombardment of imagery.

Worlds collide and smash together in Austin’s annual melting pot of global ideas. Having been to SXSW in 2016 as part of the music conference, I was back with my band after a year break to grace the stages of Rainey Street, 6th Street, and Red River once more in 2018.

The convention centre is the first stop for anyone attending, and it is here that bands and gamers can be seen rubbing shoulders with technology representatives, marketers, researchers, and any imaginable business people from around the globe.

I met a fellow researcher who was particularly interested in how she can help clients shift behaviour in tangible and measurable ways. I spoke with a marketing manager from the UK who wanted to see how AI might affect branding and brand communications in the future.

Indeed, the dominant theme of the conference was the potential of AI and VR.

The tech part of the convention centre was filled with new gadgets, which all seemed to be aimed at convenience, and allowing people to do everything from the safety of their homes. Virtual gyms, home delivery smart fridges, video email, and virtual concerts.

As exciting as this is, as a researcher I found it smudging the borders between a future of greater convenience and dystopia.

The AI and VR focus made me think of science fiction author Octavia Butler’s novel in which rich people sequester themselves from society and retreat further into virtual worlds, while poor people are left to fight and scrap for society’s left overs. While this is a bleak and dystopian view of the future it got me thinking: who is going to be able to access AI and VR in the future? Is it purely going to cater for the whims of the rich, or is it going to be more pervasive and available to all members of society?

This was even more apparent outside the glossy promises of the conference in the wider streets of Austin. While the convention centre was brimming with gadgetry to minimise and streamline human interaction, Austin’s less fortunate were be pushed to the perimeters. We were accosted by a man who was chasing a chicken down Rainey street. It was a strange sight, seeing a live chicken being stalked by a guy in the middle of one of the world’s biggest festivals on an historic street that had been transformed into a corporate entertainment strip. He asked us for money, but being partly beholden to the new virtual world, we had no cash. He said that he wanted his city back from people like us who come in and take over his city and don’t share any of the benefits with him. We replied that despite appearances, maybe we’re not so different, after all, we’re just the free entertainment playing for exposure. Exposure won’t feed my family, but at least that chicken will feed him for a time. And this guy is the ‘crazy’ one?

This encounter brought home to me the persistent power of human interaction, and the potential ‘divide’ between those with access to new technology and those without.

AI and VR are promising arenas for so many reasons, and people’s preoccupation with technology is a seeming truism of our nature to continue to redefine what’s possible. But, like with any new technology, there are serious implications for society. The power to liberate or enslave balances on the edge of a knife.

So, will we see push back from people sick of not reaping the benefits of such advances? Will AI and VR challenge and irrevocably change patterns of cultural expression that have been a cornerstone of human interaction throughout our evolution? Will people embrace the virtual world or rally against it?

The answers to these questions will decide directions future human societies take.

March 26th, 2018