SXSW Interactive


Old. This single word comes to mind when I trek the streets of downtown Austin this year for SXSW. Seriously, things just seem farther away, but except for one film, I have enjoyed every thing I have done so far and these positive experiences drive me forward through the week. The Trade Show is in full swing and exhibitors demonstrate everything from hydroponic farming, powered by solar panels (all housed in a semi trailer) to human-like robots with artificial intelligence.  The Japan Factory across the street houses some of the most remarkable AI and virtual reality set ups I have seen to date.

There are prosthetic legs that make walking easier and falling less likely, mechanical frames to take the weight and pressure offer workers who need to use heavy tools in construction, apps that water house plants and that check genetics to align diet to a person’s needs and virtual reality in almost every aspect of human life. While I walk, like everyone else, in awe as I move from booth to booth, I can’t help but think of the film Wall-E and the obese, chair-ridden humans who need to do NOTHING for themselves.  Apps can shop from us – “Alexia, we need toilet paper,” can have food delivered to our door – something that currently still requires delivery people, but not for long – and apps that stream video right to glasses or other electronic devices.

I was in Hawaii recently and as I walked along one of the pretty stretches in Kona, I passed six young women – college aged – who were each so engrossed in their phones that they were not talking to each other nor were they noticing the beauty around them. Joggers can run on treadmills and through VR can experience running almost anywhere in the world, even on the beach in Hawaii. At least these people run. When will the AI, the VR and the gadgets take away all face-to-face, social aspects of humanity? When will we all stay home and never venture out to experience life for real? Yes, some of these gizmos make life easier, and I stand comfortable in the idea that AI is logical and structured and will unlikely ever replace creative thinking. Soon we will have programs that program and code (eliminating the need for these tech careers). Education for these jobs will need to change to meet new needs, but I believe creative thinking, artists, and imaginers will be in higher demand. I hope, at least, that we can avoid taking away our otherwise inherent need to be social creatures.

My grandchildren are among a generation of people who have never known life without computers, smartphones, tablets and social media. They play outdoors less, interact via technology more and live in a world were a desire for instant gratification is met more instantaneously.  I hope we are not destined to turn to physical mush, our brains tied to flashing screens with machines fulfilling our every need. If so, I look to a tiny robot to roll into our lives and save us from ourselves.  I do admire these new trends and believe we need a balance. Those of us who know better need to find that balance with our children and our grandchildren and these generations need to promote and nurture creative, social, adventurous children who use brain and body to be better, more openly active and creative humans who truly live in the here and now.