Even before the start of the SXSW 2017, you could already tell what would be the main theme this year: artificial intelligence. Put simply, you can think of AI as behaviors that are similar to those of humans – only performed by technological mechanisms. By cell phone. By computer. By microwave. By the cute and cynical little robot that tricks “captcha” when it says it’s not a robot (on YouTube: Robot beats “I am not a Robot” captcha). Watch it – it’s surreal.
Actually, that’s a word that always described this topic well: surreal. In 1984, James Cameron launched The Terminator and immortalized the phrase “I’ll be back,” uttered by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The story is pure science fiction, but it always gave us shivers because it made us say things like, “OK, it’s just Hollywood, it’s not real. But, if I really think about it, it could really happen.” The movie shows the adventures of a cyborg who goes back in time (from the year 2029) to change the course of history on Earth. (The rest would be a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t yet seen this 1980s classic.) But the point here is: if technology advanced enough to produce robots that are as smart – or smarter – than humans, how would we prevent them from rebelling against us? That was a great premise for the production, launch and sale of a blockbuster (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released in 1991), which ended up winning Oscars in four categories. But let’s stop here. While Cameron’s narrative was fascinating, and worked well for a movie, it’s no reason to scare anyone nowadays. Want to know what is really scary when it comes to AI? Not knowing about it.
No… Artificial intelligence is not news. But it’s scary because the subject is still very niche. It’s not mainstream, so it seems far off and more of a topic of discussion for the most attuned, the nerds, mad scientists, hypes and tech lovers. Do you remember when the BlackBerry* was still that great big expensive device, with tons of buttons that seemed indecipherable, that sent and received emails, that launched BBM long before the world knew WhatsApp, and that was a status symbol on the American corporate market? Guys, it was just a smartphone. But it felt like something from another world.
There are people who make faces when they hear the word “mainstream,” because it bugs them when things are no longer exclusive. But this line of thought, at least when it comes to technology, is silly. Technology for all, even though that sounds like the name of a government program, is fundamental to making people’s lives easier, simpler, more productive and smarter. Think of the BlackBerry and of all the other smartphones that followed. They didn’t become mainstream because they were launched with amazing advertising campaigns or unique PR strategies. They earned a prominent place in people’s lives because they proved to be relevant in a world that is completely connected, agile, dynamic, and has no time to lose. It’s simple. And it’s what is needed for the concept of AI to switch from just an intangible theory to a part of our daily lives.
Relevance is one of the main criteria for the success of a Brand. You, as a service, a product or a company, need to make sense and make a difference in people’s lives. That’s why the easier it is to understand artificial intelligence, the less scared people will be. Then, the sky’s the limit for the birth of new consumers, markets, solutions, habits and trends.
A quick search through this year’s SXSW schedule shows how hot the topic is. There are several presentations and panels geared towards discussions around artificial intelligence and its relevance in people’s lives: AI in medicine; AI in the connection between brands and consumers; AI in anti-corruption strategies; AI for childhood education, self-esteem, cuisine, neuroscience, creativity and even a few ultra-controversial topics, like the relationship between artificial intelligence and fascism.
There’s no turning back. AI is part of our lives, and it is on the agenda of many, many innovative brands from around the world (including brands that haven’t even been launched yet). The challenge now is to dispel the myth that it’s just something you see in movies. And, when this does end up happening, the fear of the new will be replaced by the feeling that always goes along with humanity’s great innovations: “how did we ever manage to live without this?”
I am very optimistic about the approach taken to artificial intelligence at SXSW 2017, because it’s clear that there is a “popularization” movement around the subject. Of course, at the moment, the SXSW is not a popular symbol, and is not appealing to everyone. But the thousands of people that are in the most liberal city in Texas for the event will be leaving here with much more inspiration and information, and many more tools to disseminate, create, test and recreate on the subject – and that includes several different types of professionals. From the guy who writes about technology to the guy who develops it. From the seller to the buyer. And, most of all, from the guy who understands a lot about the subject to the guy who still thinks that AI is the work of the devil – or of 1980s trash-cult films.
*BlackBerry is not an example of artificial intelligence in this article. It was mentioned merely as an example of a niche innovation.