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AI, Machine Learning And Smart Cities: Trends From SXSW Interactive 16

Austin’s South by Southwest is historically known as a music showcase, yet the Interactive portion of the conference is now the biggest draw for tens of thousands of attendees who come from across the globe.  Alan Melson, KERA’s VP of Digital, has been writing about the conference this weekend. I spoke with him about what’s on tech folks’ minds.

Alan, it seems like every year there are several recurring themes that emerge from South By Southwest Interactive.  What seems to be bubbling up this year?


Well, South By has been a place where new technologies have made a big splash in past years, including Twitter and 3-D printing.  Last year was all about virtual and augmented reality. But it seems like things took a more abstract turn this year, with conversations about artificial intelligence, or as many call it, “A-I”.


Why has A-I become such a hot topic this year?

I think it’s because the technology is starting to catch up to its potential.  There were multiple sessions about machine learning, a complex form of AI that uses algorithms to look at data and learn from it.  This means the computer trains itself to perform a task, instead of just following a set of instructions.  A simple example is the way Amazon learns what you like by watching what you click on or buy.

The next level is deep learning, which tries to mimic the way the human brain builds connections through neural networks.  Google has been experimenting with this through a division called Deep Mind, which is doing everything from learning patterns in health care to playing games that simulate interpersonal conflict.  The possibilities are pretty huge, but for people already suspicious about what our devices know about it, there are still big ethical questions to sort out.

You wrote about efforts to use machine learning in design – how does that work?

There was a really cool presentation by a researcher at MIT named Pip Mothersill who is using A-I to teach computers how to create designs better represent how we feel.  She has created online tools where you can create forms based on emotions and descriptive words, and is working on ways these can be incorporated into the design of furniture and other industrial and household objects.

What about this whole smart cities thing?

Yeah, a lot of discussion on that.  The idea is “smart” cities create better places to live through careful use of technology and data, which enables improvements in everything from transportation to housing and  healthcare.  City leaders, including the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, stressed the need to be more flexible and nimble, and work with startups to help speed up positive changes.

Did the current conversations about national politics pop up during the conference?

Oh, definitely.  One session I attended argued that better urban planning will improve civic engagement.  National poll numbers show we’re increasingly polarized, and people say they’ve lost trust in the government, but the panelists made some pretty compelling arguments that people who actually use parks and other public spaces where they live are much more likely to be involved in their city, feel like they have a voice in local politics, and even actually like their elected leaders.

Seems like a novel concept these days.  Alan, thanks for your time.

Thanks, Anne!