Attendees at South by Southwest last week didn't know that Elon Musk would make a surprise appearance and tell attendees at this festival of booze, BBQ, music and tech about his aspirations in starting a civilization on Mars, or how artificial intelligence is more dangerous than nuclear warheads.
But Musk's arrival, and the accompanying buzz that spread from Austin to Australia, was a homerun for SXSW. Organizers said roughly 422,000 people attended the conference between March 10 to March 19 last year. While this year's numbers have yet to be finalized, organizers expect the tally to be at least that high (or higher) this year.
The notion that SXSW is the conference where companies such as Twitter or Foursquare make their debut is long gone. The fun was balanced by weightier themes such as the lack of ethics in artificial intelligence and the need to hold tech companies accountable. And while larger-than-life spectacles, such as the Google Assistant Fun House (where you could make a car bounce by saying, "OK Google, bounce!") were present, so were smaller, intimate events, which appeared to be part of a growing trend at this year's festival.
Here, we share some three takeaways (and a tip) from the event.
AI needs a big-time ethics check
On March 10 at 10:10 p.m., SXSW organizers sent reporters an unexpected email with the subject: "Elon Musk answers your questions! Media pass information."
The email provided a link to RSVP – but surprise! – it quickly filled up. During his appearance, Musk advocated for ethics in AI. "I'm very close to cutting-edge AI and it scares the hell out of me," he said. "We have to figure out some way to insure that the advent of digital superintelligence is one which is symbiotic with humanity."
Musk pointed to Google's Alphago, which over the course of a year went from being unable to beat a skilled player to beating the world champion in the Chinese game of Go -- while playing several other players simultaneously. "The rate of improvement is very dramatic," he said. "That's the single biggest existential crisis that we face and the most pressing one. Mark my words: AI is far more dangerous than nuclear warheads."
That point struck a chord with Mindshare Canada Chief Strategy Officer Devon MacDonald. He used the example of a session he attended on bots in mental health which discussed using artificial intelligence to guide people to actions that can alleviate symptoms of anxiety or depression.
"Information like that at the third tier is incredibly powerful. Right now, it's being used for good," he says. But he thinks there needs to be a recognition that the information could have huge implications in the future. "What are the safeguards or protections put in that information?"
Tech giants must be more accountable
When Twitter became a social media darling after debuting at SXSW 11 years ago, nobody could have predicted the flurry of issues it's now facing. Between harassment, fake news and more, tech companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook are seeking solutions to problems unforseen when their platforms were being built.
Susan Wojcicki, CEO at YouTube, said during a panel at SXSW that the company would add "information cues" pulled from Wikipedia in videos that promote false or highly questionable claims.
Although a step in the right direction, some criticized YouTube for using a community of volunteers (who are also human) to help solve a problem created by its technology. And it certainly didn't help when the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, said the next day that it was never informed of YouTube's plans.
Meanwhile, Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, asked Facebook, Twitter to better tackle hate speech after reading racist tweets about himself on stage.
Augmented reality is coming -- for real this time
Building on the steam generated from the Consumer Electronics Show, augmented reality was shown nearly everywhere at SXSW this year. Companies like Sony, Accenture and even Bose showcased what the technology can achieve.
Bose, for example, developed a pair of sunglasses, but they didn't overlay images as many might expect, but instead pushed sound to the user's uncovered ear. Each stem on the glasses has a speaker that emits sound to the user's ear, but not loud enough so others can hear what the person is listening to. The shades track the users head movement and use location technology so when you look at a store, for example, the shades will provide information relevant to what the person is looking at.
The product is only in prototype, and the company announced it will invest $50 million in startups to make applications specifically for its AR shades.
Accenture used two entire floors to showcase its AR chops to attendees. It focused on making grocery shopping more informative by overlaying AR images over common products at grocery stores accessed by smartphones. The smartphones showed information relevant to the user, such as if the product is gluten free.
The company admitted that using a smartphone isn't an ideal way to experience grocery shopping, but says tech is being developed where people will one day wear something similar to a pair of sunglasses.
AR advances, such as the recent release of Magic Leap's augmented reality glasses and the advent of volumetric video capture in VR (meaning you can actually walk around a 3-D subject in a VR experience), are paving the way for an eventual marriage of VR and AR, says Dario Raciti, director of Zero Code, OMD's interactive entertainment group.
Now here's the tip: Get yourself on a list
More than in previous years, brands at SXSW seemed to offer unique experiences on a limited, invite-only basis. Beautyrest, for example, placed 150 beds on stage at Bass Concert Hall in Austin as composer Max Richter and his eight-man orchestra played music from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. the next day.
Demand for the event was high, but not everyone was able to check it out as the event was invite-only—a growing theme at SXSW.
"We knew the concert would be powerful and that it would stand out as one-of-a-kind," says Warren Kornblum, interim CMO at Serta Simmons Bedding. "We were also confident that Beautyrest mattresses would contribute to the concert in a way that would come through in the resulting word-of-mouth that went beyond the concert hall."
HBO's experiential marketing extravaganza, for which it hired dozens of actors and transformed two acres of land into the set of its hit show, "Westworld," was also tough to get into. Tickets were snapped up immediately as they were released, and a standby line had people waiting for upwards of eight hours.
The "surprise" premiere of "Ready Player One" — which included an appearance with Steven Spielberg himself — was another hot ticket, with a long line around the block hoping to get in the Paramount Theater.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said Beautyrest was able to add more beds to an event at Bass Concert Hall. Once the original 150 on-stage beds were full, other people were able to sit in seats in the audience, but Beautyrest did not add new beds.