Our Top Ten: Day 1 at SXSW

March 10, 2018


Welcome to “Our Top Ten,” a special daily series coming to you direct from the streets (and hotel lobbies and conference rooms) of Austin, TX for the 2018 SXSW Interactive Festival. Just sit back and consume – our on-the-ground team will distill the important themes from the day for you. 

We might as well get this out of the way: no topic is more pervasive and important at this year’s SXSW Interactive festival than Artificial Intelligence (AI). You’re going to see AI peppered into our daily recaps, alongside some bigger pieces down the road, because it’s just that transformative – for better, and possibly worse. But it’s not all AI. Healthcare is also a huge topic this year, and issues of trust and authenticity are permeating every taco stand in Austin.

To that end, here’s Our Top Ten from Day 1 (March 9) of SXSW:

Tacos and More Tacos

It’s an Austin and SXSW cliche: “there are so many taco options! Eat the breakfast tacos! Instagram them!” But, here’s the deal: it’s a cliche for a reason. From taco trucks to tacquerias to proper restaurants, you can’t go wrong with a couple of these to start your day. Who knows, we might go crazy and do the same thing tomorrow.

Ethics with a Capital ‘E’ 

From a panel of brands and marketers discussing AI in fashion and beauty to a group of data scientists discussing whether or not machine learning is overhyped, everyone is addressing the topic of ethics in AI. How do we account for biases in data and outcomes? What value system should our AI be based on? This is one of the central issues of our time and, while there are a number of SXSW panels that address ethics in 2018 it will be an ongoing issue for years to come.

We Have Trust Issues… 

Trust in media and government appears to be at an all-time low. And now we have major technology and social platforms being used to sow discord in populations, share disturbing content and more. The intersection of these three institutional forces is popping up in all types of panels.

… But We Trust Influencers

Maybe not as popular of a singular topic as in years’ past, influencers are still a crucial component of SXSW and in a brand’s marketing/communication mix. In the aforementioned panel on AI in fashion and beauty, the speakers agreed: even as AI integrates into influencer campaigns and programs, influencers are, at the core, trust agents. The transparent, trust-based relationships influencers have with their communities, and the authentic relationships between brands and influencers, will continue to be at the core.

AI + Health Care = Complicated 

AI and healthcare are poised to change the world, but the reality of the situation is much thornier than we often think. Data scientists can program AI to win a game of Go or chess through countless “real” simulations (with very little external risk), but we can’t use AI to just try things out on real people billions of times. And there are real risks to trying a new strategy or idea. Finale Doshi-Velez, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Harvard, argued that in the near-term, maybe we should have AI learning how to mimic the best doctors, instead.

Finale Doshi-Velez, 2nd left, at Machine Learning: Worth the Hype?

Hype and Hope

Listening to marketers talk about AI is so, so much different than listening to data scientists talk about AI. Which, of course, makes sense. But at times, they seem to be speaking different languages, with data scientists caring less about definitions and more about what happens when “data makes decisions.” Marketers, on the other hand, are high on hype and buzzwords but a little less-so on the outcomes. There needs to be a middle ground, where practice meets reality. And we’re not there yet.


Lots of chatter around cryptocurrecy, bitcoin, and blockchain but even the nerds at SXSW benefited from Money 20/20’s 60 second overview of what it is and how it works. You don’t have to completely understand how it all works to dig into the consumer trends that are driving it’s rapid adoption. Consumers are craving more control, seeking a stronger connection to community and care more about privacy than ever before.

Art and Science

Big data, the buzz work of years past, is starting to fizzle, but that doesn’t mean access to and leveraging data wasn’t core to so many of the discussions today. From trendsetting, to innovations in healthcare and machine learning, data is still at at the heart of it all. What was new to the conversation, was the acknowledgment that you need more than just data. Whether it’s the cultural experiences that help share a trend, or community values that should drive AI decision making, people are paying a little more attention to the softer side of things.

Is Content Still King?

Or is context finally ascending to the thrown? As the next generation of consumers are pressing companies to stand for something more than the bottom line, the rules of engagement are starting to shift, too. Brand storytelling is no longer enough – if it’s not authentic, younger consumers see right through it, and even when it is, they want more. Not to talk politics (another phrase I heard multiple times today), Patagonia saw sales spike the day, and week after it put out a defiant statement in response to President Trump’s plan to roll back protections on two national monuments in Utah. It only worked for them because it was truly authentic to who they are and the values they share with their consumer.

Whether the Weather

One of the main character’s in any SXSW is the weather. As trite as gabbing about the weather may seem, it still can make packing a chore. This year is no exception. Today’s grey and windy seasonal weather will give way to sun and temperatures upwards of 90F tomorrow. You know what that means? More hot (but mostly measured and insightful) takes from us. Stay tuned.