SXSW Insights 2024: the potential and peril of AI

The SXSW hype machine was in full flow this year, with AI — quite justifiably — at its centre. But we need to focus on the wider picture and the potential downsides, too.

SXSW was, throughout the 2010s, the place where the Hot New App launched. It’s a mark of how the tech landscape has changed that, once the event returned post-pandemic, now the conversation is about fundamental technologies, rather than just something cool to put on your phone.

And so, inevitably, SXSW 2024 had an awful lot of talk about Generative AI, the breakout technology of the last 18 months. And, breaking with SXSW’s traditional image as something of a hype machine, the coverage wasn’t always positive. This is probably a good thing: everyone from journalists to regulators has been too willing to hype new tech, without paying attention to the potential downsides. Having regulators taking a careful look at emerging tech could well make it more stable as it develops.

But let’s look at the optimists first.

The AI paradigm shift

Sebastian Schally, a managing director at Accenture Song (NEXT’s parent company), came away buzzing with excitement at the transformative potential of this emerging technology. As he put it in a post on LinkedIn:

We’re on the brink of a paradigm shift where AI isn’t just an adjunct but a central catalyst for businesses — large and small — to innovate and scale at unprecedented rates. The prospect of a solo entrepreneur leveraging AI to create a billion-dollar valuation is no longer a mere fantasy; it’s a forecast of the near future.

This idea of the $1bn solo entrepreneur has its roots in a statement by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, given during an interview with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian:

“In my little group chat with my tech CEO friends there’s this betting pool for the first year that there is a one-person billion-dollar company,” Altman told Ohanian. “Which would have been unimaginable without AI and now will happen.”

And that’s an exciting idea — but also troubling for those of us in existing companies. How do we compete?

How AI accelerates businesses

Schally also has some context for us on that, too. He described the core impacts of AI on businesses as:

• the acceleration of innovation,
• competitive intelligence in the face of industry disruption,
• the critical integration of AI tools for efficiency,
• the scalability that defies traditional growth models,
• the future of organizational structures focusing on AI-empowered talent,
• the importance of educating leaders on AI’s potential,
• and the mapping of new ecosystems.

In other words, AI should be viewed as more akin to digital transformation, something that requires root and branch change of your business systems, rather than just a tool to be deployed practically. It’s another symptom of the fact that the new normal is an ever-shifting state of business.

The AI-led tech super-cycle

Daniel Gonsior, also from Accenture Song, encourages us to look a little more broadly than just at AI. It might be the flavour of the month (or even the year), but it’s hardly the only major innovation that looks set to change our lives. He sees AI at the forefront of a much bigger transformation:

Unfolding: We are at the cusp of a tech supercycle, driven by AI, biotechnology, and interconnected devices, promising to overhaul everything from daily habits to global supply chains. In my opinion, the most remarkable development through the convergence of multiple trends.

What are these trends?

  • Mobility and robotics: the combination of electrification and automation enabling new ways of facilitating mobility of goods and people
  • Climate tech: A future built on solar geo-engineering and smart grids becomes both integral to our fight against global warming, and a catalyst for innovation in its own right.
  • Bioengineering: AI-driven research could revolutionise bio-engineering.

While AI informs and transforms all of these categories, they are worth paying attention to in their own right.

SXSW scepticism about AI

However, the SXSW take on AI was more mixed than one would expect from such a tech-forward conference. While the scepticism among the creative community is understandable, governments and regulators are paying attention, too. As Webb Wright reported for The Drum:

“When it comes to AI, my general vibe is concerned to very concerned,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold told audience members during a Tuesday panel called “Elections in the Age of AI: New Tech’s Impacts on Democracy,” which focused largely on the increasing presence of deepfakes in the political media landscape.

Given the sheer number of elections globally this year, that’s a short-term worry that needs addressing. But there are longer-term issues that need attention, too:

Some AI experts worry that excessive enthusiasm for the technology could make it more difficult to realistically map out its potential harms and practical applications, while others have been more direct in their belief that it poses a real, immediate danger to society.

If anything, this is a reminder that anything powerful is neither inherently good nor bad. The trick, as ever, is to make the most of the benefits whilst minimising the harm. Buckle up, people. We’ve got work to do.

Further reading

Copyright Image SXSW.