Everything is information – that was the key outtake we gained from attending futurist Amy Webb’s Emerging Tech Trend Report keynote at SXSW in Austin, Texas (10-19 March 2023).
It was a theme which continued throughout the event, as the countless applications for AI and other emerging technologies across sectors lead us towards ethical and societal considerations that would have meant nothing just a few years ago.
According to Amy, the tipping point has been reached, and the next step is convergence – a single generalist AI that will be woven into every single human experience.
Amy predicts an ‘AIsmosis’ event will happen within the next few years – one that will change the world. We are in danger of being wildly unprepared. There is an 80 percent chance of catastrophe in the form of a culture of inescapable aggressive recommendation and curation. Imagine a world where everything is second-guessed on our behalf, and scream.
And then there are the ethical questions being raised in relation to the massive demand for training data, and the extremes to which that demand is leading developers to source this data. Some firms are creepily training their AI on the video recordings of school children home-learning online during the pandemic, including footage of their conversations with parents, and their interactions with friends.
What’s worse is the realisation that workforces will be wildly unprepared for the changes that are going to sweep through their industries. We need to upskill young and old people alike to be able to use these systems. Otherwise, we risk falling into a digital divide. This isn’t just a white collar issue, it’s one that everyone will be dealing with.
The issue was echoed by Olivia Igbokwe-Curry, the lead for US Federal Affairs at Amazon Web Services. In a fringe session with AI For The People, she said that if we only focus on those with a degree in computational science, there will be a massive deficit in the skills needed to power the coming revolution. PR outreach is needed to inform people in underserved areas about the opportunities for AI upskilling, because one sector of the population alone won’t be enough to handle the coming AIsmosis.
AI and the news media
The news media is on its own AI-driven journey, and one looming concern is the hyper-personalisation of content. This development risks losing readers down rabbit holes of specificity, cutting them off from the wider ecosystem of content. As Laura Ellis, the BBC’s Head of Technology Forecasting said in a session on AI in Newsrooms, personalisation is not the pot of gold that so many think it is. People want shared experiences, water cooler moments that keep us bonded together.
There remain many unresolved questions about generative AI and copyright, making any official use of ChatGPT difficult to allow in an official way in newsrooms. Furthermore, should we be concerned about the prospect of only the top media groups being able to afford to integrate cutting edge AI?
But enough of the doom and gloom. Because there were many examples at SXSW of how emerging technologies are also leading to wonderful, unexpected applications. In an Ignite session, Elizabeth Landau, NASA’s Senior Communications Specialist, explained how the space agency is now able to play the sounds of the universe. Data from NASA telescopes is being translated into sound, meaning that that the blind can experience the universe too. A black hole sounds spooky like a Gregorian chant; The sun vibrates meditatively; and Saturn sounds like Aphex Twin apparently.
Meanwhile, in other explorations of the senses, UK company Storytrails won an Innovation Award for launching the world’s first ever multi-sensory augmented reality game, at the Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth. Equipped with special backpacks containing a scent device that spreads smells redolent of the Tudor period, visitors use their mobile phones as magical spyglasses, revealing secrets from the past.
We hold the keys to our future
During the session on AI in Newsrooms, one message seemed to hold importance far beyond the context in which it was spoken. The BBC’s Laura Ellis told the room that it’s possible to be over-fatalistic about the impact of emerging tech on our communities and institutions. We all have an active role in shaping our future – in creating ways in which technology can enrich our lives, not enslave us.