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SXSW: Don’t Fear The Future Of Technology 11

I’m attending the 2018 SXSW Interactive Festival, exploring issues, breakthroughs and ideas at the crossroads of technology and culture. Follow me at @christyrobinson for short updates along the way.

Discussions about the rapid development of technology can get dark and dystopian. Which jobs will shrivel up and die next because of artificial intelligence? Once IoT completely connects everything, what will be left of privacy?

Those are understandable concerns.

But what if the best is yet to come, instead?

Several session panelists at SXSW across industries made positive cases why they think the world is evolving into a more transparent, convenient and even meaningful place — thanks to advances in technology.

In communication

If you think the internet is turning humanity’s brain into pudding, consider Robert Belgrade, CEO of Wirehive and one of the pair leading the “The Best is Yet to Come: Digital Renaissance” session.

“I’m massively dyslexic and hated school, so I basically taught myself everything I know on the internet,” he told his co-presenter Jim Bowes, Chief Innovation Officer at creative tech group The Panapoly, on stage.

Because connectivity aided his education, communication tech becoming more accessible to others is “quite close to home for me and quite personal.”

He said he thinks about everyone around the globe who hasn’t had easy access to the internet like he did. Less than half have access at all.

In 2016, 3 billion of the world’s roughly 7.5 billion population had access to the internet, he said. That rose from 1.5 billion of about 7 billion in 2010.

Forecasts say that between 2022 and 2025, 100 percent of the world’s population will have access to the internet.

Companies, like Google and Space X, are going into the remaining global areas to distribute internet access for “basically free,” Bowes said. “That access will change lives for the better.”

It’s part of the world’s state of abundance, which Belgrade says will continue to grow because of technology. And by “abundance,” he doesn’t mean gluttony: “It [means] a more meaningful and distributed future.”

Belgrade also told attendees to anticipate changes to how we interact with smartphones.

“Smartphones are basically going to be free, for lots of reasons. Cost of production is getting cheaper. But also, if I want to sell you something, I’m going to want you to have a smartphone in your pocket,” he said. “So it’s probably going to be in my interest to just give you one, especially if they only cost something like $10 to manufacture.”

Bowes says there is speculation that in a couple of years, Apple could announce that they will be able to remove the smartphone from our day-to-day lives.

Belgrade topped that with an eyebrow-raising reply: “I think it inevitably ends up being an implant. But it’s very hard to make that sound positive.”

In energy

In addition to communication, Belgrade said that energy advances will be part of our future of abundance, too.

“We’re finally at the tipping point where it becomes cheaper to produce it renewably than it does to produce it with fossil fuels or nuclear,” he said. “As soon as energy becomes cheaper to produce renewably, it’s simply going to take over.”

In addition to helping remedy climate change, Bowes pointed out an additional benefit of advances in renewable energy technology: an economic boost for developing countries.

“One of the fascinating things about this is that some of the countries that have the most [renewable] energy are some of the poorest in the world at the moment,” he said. “So it also has the potential to create some level of redistribution of wealth.”

If the fast-moving digital landscape — like AI — still causes you concern, make note of a group that is working to establish and ensure ethical development and policies moving forward, the duo said. Twenty designers, urbanists, researchers, writers, and futurists established the Juvet Agenda last fall in Norway to detail concerns, protocols and possibilities for AI.

In law enforcement

A panel of four law enforcement stakeholders discussed “Using Tech to Improve Police-Community Relations,” including former Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead.

Perry Tarrant, Assistant Chief of the Seattle Police Department said, in today’s tense climate between many police forces and their communities, it’s paramount to build trust and foster transparency. Human-to-human interactions are key to that. But technology is supporting that mission more and more as well.

Law enforcement agencies aren’t exactly known for early-adopting tech advancements.

Halstead and Perry talked about policing’s slow but eventual embrace of tech. In the late 1980s, Halstead’s wife was in her last trimester of pregnancy, and her doctor told him to carry a pager. He was punished on the job for carrying a pager on his police uniform belt — wearing technology, visible and out in the open, was strictly against the rules.

With body cameras as the norm, “now look at us,” he said.

Katherine Nammacher, CEO of tech startup RideAlong, asked Perry what role technology has played in law enforcement’s attempts to build stronger relationships with their communities.

“In terms of where policing started and where policing is today, and the development of technology, there’s been kind of that huge leap,” Perry said. “But at first it was, ‘How can technology help us to better do the job,’” not how how it can be used to better communicate their methods, tactics and actions to the community.

He was asked by Pres. Obama to go to Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014, then to Charlotte, N.C., in 2016 after the police shooting death of Keith Scott.

“The conversation there with the state legislature in North Carolina was, they wanted to restrict from releasing any video at all. What does that do to legitimacy and trust?” Perry said. “You can’t close ranks. You have to talk about what it is you’re doing. You have to educate. And that’s where technology has really been recently with law enforcement, using it to build on those relationships, building transparency.”

But he said there’s still a gap. Law enforcement needs to use technology to better communicate with victims.

Panelist Rahul Sidhu, CEO of Spidr Tech, said his company helps agencies scale their communications with victims and other community members, so that police can focus more on the face-to-face aspect of relationship building.

For instance, a victim will get an automated but personalized email after they file a report that contains information on their case and next steps.

“It’s a way to make them feel heard and build trust,” Sidhu said.

In storytelling

As lead designer an “Envisioneer” at Microsoft Garage, Mike Pell’s job is to experiment with moonshot ideas where technology and creativity collide, like holograms — a technique that enables the projection of a 3D image into space. (Think Princess Leia as a hologram in Star Wars, but better.)

“When you view it the first time, it’s immediately emotional,” he said during his SXSW session “Envisioning Holograms: For Storytellers & Explorers.”

He’s not sure why people have that reaction. But he believes in the possibilities of holograms as storytelling tools. They have the potential to more deeply connect people to a story, he said.

He thinks mixed reality — blending real life with computer-generated objects or environments — will become a big element of storytelling in advertising, business and entertainment.

He also predicts it will be a game-changing hit with the kids, too. With holograms or other mixed reality, children will be able control the narrative, on-demand, of a story.

The hologram designer gets excited at the thought of creating new reading and storytelling experiences in drastically new ways.

“As designers, we couldn’t ask for anything better,” he said. “People are always the key. It’s never about technology.”


You can hear all sessions on SXSW’s Soundcloud account.