Drones, Bots and AI oh my. SXSW highlights


sxsw highlights

A highlight from SXSW was appearing on the stage at the Dell Experience with Konnie Brown, Amy Heiss, Bryan Kramer and Brian Fanzo. Dell’s event space was a remarkable gathering place for the company’s customers and fans.

By Mark Schaefer

Each year I look forward to attending the annual SXSW conference to push my brain in some new directions. This is my eighth SXSW and to me, this is the most exciting place in the world featuring all the coolest breakthrough thinkers in media, publishing, technology, and marketing convening in one big Austin Texas madhouse. This year 80,000 people attended from every corner of the globe. Some time slots had more than 50 concurrent sessions, not counting the many private offsite sessions going on at the same time.

I did my best to pluck out a few meaningful sessions and here are some interesting highlights I picked up from my trip. This is PART ONE of my report from Austin.

Is there a kill switch that could shut down the Internet?

Representatives from ICANN, Facebook, and others talking about could the Internet be shut down … it already is in certain countries, for instance. Very interesting discussion about the tech, policy, and politics behind the Internet. My major takeaway is that the Internet is certainly vulnerable but also resilient. Every attack makes the Internet a little stronger as coders figure out how to patch things and fight off the bad guys.

Last year in an interview US President Barack Obama said in an interview that if something went wrong with artificial intelligence we would just unplug the Internet. Is there a kill switch? No.


I went to a session on emerging issues with drones. This industry is taking off literally and figuratively but it was interesting to see that VC funding into this industry has dipped two years in a row. Still a lot of safety and regulatory hurdles that might be dampening enthusiasm for the hope of quick adoption.

Chatbots, sales and service

Chatbot developers expressed frustration that they feel like they have something to prove. “Brands claim people want to talk to humans on the phone. Who does that any more? Who wants to be on the phone? Why is this even a discussion?”

Big mistake — companies think they need to solve every single problem and address every consumer question with chatbots or it is a failure. This is the wrong mindset. Customer service has to be a blend of people and bots.

Developers talked about creating a “bot experience” which includes a plan to drive traffic to the bot, optimize sales conversions, build fun into the conversations.

Market tension exists as battles for the best bot platforms are waged. Brands don’t want Google or Facebook negotiating the relationship with their customers. To get everything done, somehow you will need to link all the accounts — Amazon, Facebook, Google and more. This is going to be a huge problem. There will have to be an “HTML for voice search.”

The thing that is missing from chatbot perpetuation is the “killer use case.” The underlying tech has a long way to go, as well as proof of ROI. CEOs don’t get it. Takes support from the top to drive it.

Emoji is becoming the international language. We may not understand language on an Instagram post but everyone can communicate appreciation, support, sympathy now to any one in any language.

Terminator rises?

Session on evil artificial intelligence started with:

“With AI, we are summoning the demon” – Elon Musk.

“AI is the biggest threat to the human race. I can’t believe more people are not worried about this.” – Bill Gates

“Fast machines will eventually get rid of slow humans.” – Steve Wozniak

There are think tanks developing to deal with the ethics of perceiving, sensing, reasoning artificial intelligence. AI is coming fast due to three trends:

  • Explosion of available data
  • Massive increase in computational power, including quantum computing
  • Research breakthroughs in machine deep learning

Experts believe that sometime between 2045 and 2100 we will have emotional, sentient, super-intelligent robots. The panel of AI researchers all agreed that the human race is facing a “significant problem” and that is right for the world to start addressing this now. There is a new profession developing: AI safety.

We are likely to have safety problems before sentient robots. We are already seeing that “thinking” computers are operating in unexpected ways like demonstrating betrayal and aggressiveness. Computers are learning to solve their own problems which may lead to unintended consequences because the robot’s goals may diverge from our own.

AI-fueled robots will not be appliances. We will develop emotional attachments to our helpful robot companions. We will eventually become over-reliant on these machines (as we are over-reliant on the internet now).

The wildcard in AI is global competition. Even if America addresses the issues, the tech might be running amuck in other nations. This will be the new arms race. We may never be really sure what we are unleashing on the world due to unintended consequences.

The new media

If you were going to build a new media brand from scratch how would you do it? How do you tell the truth in a post-truth age? When the media is under attack, how does it fight back? How do create ads people actually want to see?

The Outline is answering those questions by building a new media platform from the ground up. Its CEO and editor-in-chief Joshua Topolsky explained how also journalism needs to rebuild from the rubble. My notes:

  • Journalism has done a sucky job evolving. They are focused on temporary tech solutions for long-term problems. Journalism is waiting for somebody else to fix the problem. The competition isn’t the other media, it’s Facebook and Snapchat.
  • All traditional media looks the same, feels the same, and is playing for the same audience, which they believe is Internet infinite. Tech people blow stuff up, Journalism people need to blow stuff up, too.
  • The Outline has created multiple re-usable formats to tell stories in different ways. Each article has “cards” about the story you can share and mix. Design is the first mover in the process.
  • Ads have become increasingly bad because they simply do not serve people. It is a foreign object inserted into your experience … but it doesn’t have to be that way. Make the ads very good, make them as good as the content. Make them tell stories, make them playful and interactive. Don’t annoy people. Pop-ups and banners devalue the content. People are spending 3X the time on Outline ads compared to traditional media.
  • You can’t chase The New York Times or Facebook or Buzzfeed. You have to chase what is valuable to your audience. “Millennials” are not an audience. It is an age range. There are 85 million millennials in America. Is that your audience? No. Instead of thinking about how big we can get, think about how small and focused you can remain.  When you appeal to everybody you are a commodity.
  • We are awash in sameness, the same outrage, the same angles, the same stories. Our only editorial driver is to be interesting.
  • Innovation is hard, disruption is hard, content is hard.  If anybody tells you this media transformation is easy, run away.

YouTube and influence

One of the featured speakers was filmmaker and YouTube phenomenon Casey Neistat. He was a very entertaining speaker and basically has built a career from following his whims. His most famous “whim” changed his life. Well, you really have to see it to believe it (25 million views)!

If you can’t see the video above, you can view it on YouTube: Make it Count.

Those are a few highlights and I want to emphasize these are not necessarily my opinions, they are the views of the speakers. To continue your reading about the highlights, Here is a second post with SXSW highlights!

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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  • Fabio Valeri

    Very interesting — particularly the part about the media and journalism. I agree, having “temporary tech solutions for long-term problems” won’t work.

  • Laurie

    Hey Mark. Thanks for sharing this.

    So, so many thoughts. Here are a couple rising to the surface:

    1. AI – I’m scared as hell about this. Why isn’t the world being more cautious with this? The big piece you danced around but didn’t come out and say is EGO. No one is willing to say “uncle”. Everyone wants to get there first. It may very well be the death of us.

    2. New Media – You’re a global thought leader and sometimes us wee people who operate on a much more local level can find it tough to relate your thoughts to our operations, but here’s my effort:

    My business was recently named Stratford Gazette’s 2016 Readers’ Choice for Favourite Website Designer (today – Stratford, ON; tomorrow – the world!) which if unpacked is lovely and creates some good will, but is just one of the publication’s annual efforts to create an additional revenue stream. Winners are invited to place an ad (fees start at $250 for std BW ad) in their mid-March insert announcing and congratulating the winners. So when I was invited, my initial thought was, hey, I don’t spend a lot of money on conventional advertising and it may garner a new client, so why not. But upon further reflection, I came to my senses. There are reasons I don’t do a lot of traditional advertising:

    a) Not my target audience
    b) No data
    c) I can spend a hell of a lot less and benefit a lot more from online activity, including paid ads.

    I communicated my rationale to the salesperson and invited her to run it up the flagpole with the powers that be, but given they’re owned by a media conglomerate, we’re not likely to see any change soon.

    It stuns me, and has for some time now, how slow news rags have been to adapt to and leverage the Internet to sustain and create new business.

    Again, appreciate your wrap-up (Part I) of SXSW. Look forward to Part II, Mark.

    Have a wonderful day.

  • Laurie

    Oh, and I’m going to watch that Make It Count video every morning for the foreseeable future to spur me on. Gold. Apparently I’m a bit behind on this one – my 9YO son already follows him on YT. :/

  • thank you sir

  • re AI — people don’t care about things unless it is costing them money right now.

    Thanks for the anecdote and success story Laurie. You are NOT a wee person!

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  • Thanks for taking the time to share your SXSW “Field Notes”. It gives those of us not there a chance to experience a bit of the event vicariously. Next year, we need to crowdsource the {grow} community for funds to cover you up with wearable tech so we can virtually be there. I’m talking lights, cameras, sound and in full 360 degrees the whole time. Sure, it may be a bit uncomfortable for you but we will enjoy it and isn’t that what it’s all about? Seriously though, it’s very interesting to read your takeaways and I especially like your notes on Mark Cuban’s talk. Have fun!

  • Thanks Billy. Need to get you down here!

  • Kitty Kilian

    The Outline – interesting. Design driven, for sure. In today’s issue I don’t see very deep journalism, but the design is excellent. Interesting. Fun. Technique has always been leading in changes in journalism, no matter what The Outline may say.

  • It’s new and has a hype of its own I suppose but at least its NEW! I think it is on the right track.

  • Kitty Kilian

    Yep. I also like how it feeds you the same news again and again, in different sneaky ways, so you can decide to try an article on second or third glance after all 😉 Cards, they call them? It is a modular system.

    Clever. It does not give you a lot of control over what you are seeing, you have to swipe. I think there is another publication that does this but I can’t remember which right now. I like it. And the design is awesome.

  • My view is we need to respect people online as we would offline. Almost no company does that.

  • Thanks for sharing the highlights!

    And please forgive me for my two cents.

    Casey Neistat’s video bummed me out. Maybe, it’s because of the high view count. Adrenaline and narcissistic pleasure, alone, do not speak life, truth or beauty. Or a life well lived. Where was human relationship or relationship with the planet? Those that think this is life (it’s not really thinking) and continue to pursue these Elysian fields, they are going to wreck everything. For all of us. As the Prince says at the end of the Romeo and Juliet movie, “All are punished.”

  • Excellent recap on Sxsw. Innovation is indeed hard but we’ve done such a good job recently that I feel it’s the perfect time to build on that excellence. I’m personally excited to see what comes up for the future of media.

  • I see your point but I would hate to think that all entertainment needs to be high-minded and eco-friendly. I like to watch the movie “Animal House” now and then. Not every day. But now and then : )

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