Humanity Meets Technology: The Top 5 Lessons from SXSW

We sat down with Elon Musk at SXSW.

…24 rows away from him. That counts, right?

Maybe it doesn’t, but we did go to SXSW this year and hear some amazing speakers (hello, Eddy Cue), activations (you’ve probably heard about the “Westworld" Theme Park already), products, and more. The resounding trends coming from the tech sphere? Artificial intelligence (AI) is taking over, you can blockchain this, you can robo that, and the future is bright and definitely shiny. By the time we left Austin, that shine of the future was still glistening in our eyes. However, we learned something that is innately at the heart of it all: Past all the wires, lines of code, and metal, we need humans.

On 6th Street, we ran into a robot autonomously playing the drums next to a bucket for tips. It was mesmerizing until it stopped. Promptly, a man, its owner, emerged from the crowd to start the machine back up again. A few taps later, we were all bobbing our heads again. What is technology without us? What is that man without his robot? We, as humans, need to constantly search for the right balance between what technology can do for us and what we can do for technology.

We couldn’t help but think of this throughout all of SXSW. Here are some of our key takeaways.

1. Work culture is the seed of proper growth. 
Companies cannot and will not grow without the right people at its core. Steve Huffman, CEO of Reddit, says, “If you love your work culture, it’s your burden to protect it.” Fill your company with people who work towards your mission and share the same values. This is inherently important in an age where seas of tech companies go through major growth spurts. Lose sight of this and you will wobble and find yourself sailing in a different direction (which is exactly what happened to Reddit when Huffman was not at its reins from 2009-2015).
2. Listen to your customers (who are human). 
Some of the most interesting bites we heard from Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik were about astronomical changes in its software based on feedback. An example? People felt uncomfortable getting into a Waymo car that was programmed to pull up right next to the grocery store’s exit. Customers felt like they were rushed and holding other shoppers up. Waymo took this feedback and programmed its cars to park in the parking lot instead, solving the problem. Krafcik’s goal is to make sure humans feel comfortable with his software driven “driver”. Seeing videos of customers napping in his vehicles? Nothing makes him happier. Ultimately, technology is here to serve us, so listen to your people and iterate.

3. No matter how quickly tech is innovating (especially fintech), humans will be needed.
Financial technology is booming. There’s no doubt about that. Every major bank is investing in the latest and greatest emerging tech with job displacement as a common result. In Africa? Different story. Fintech is also growing quickly, but with people at its core. Paga, a mobile banking platform in Nigeria, found that humans are absolutely necessary to its mission of getting everyone onto digital banking. Considering Nigerians are often intimidated by big banks and the latest tech, Paga utilized more than  14,000 agents as a part of its digital strategy to ease customers into a digital economy — and it's been working. It’s a perfect example of a harmonious relationship between technology and humans. The lesson learned? We shouldn’t neglect how powerful human touch can be and how necessary it is in certain markets.

4. AI is driving forward and we need to keep up with it.
Adam Cheyer, co-founder of Siri, said he’s seen advances in AI in the past eight years that he didn’t think he’d see in a lifetime. Talk about a hockey stick. AI can optimize humanity — from reducing car accidents with self-driving cars to improving the efficiency of our lives with personal assistants, the applications are limitless. However, as we take this leap, we need to remain cognizant of the impact these technologies have on our lives. For example, AI could potentially create a synthetic reality, so that neither humans nor machines can distinguish the difference. Scary, right? As technology companies continue to broaden their capabilities, humanity will irreversibly become connected to the machines we've created. We have a duty to remain skeptical and cautious of the algorithms until they are fully understood, matured, and have proven themselves trustworthy. Technology is inherently without morals, but as the creators of technology, we must be conscious of the impacts these technologies can have on our society. For us, AI isn’t about automating humans, but augmenting their potential.

5. Trust is at the heart of our decentralized future.
At the core, blockchain is just a ledger — simply a big collection of records. And yet, blockchain has the potential to dramatically change almost every industry and system that uses it: It can liberate from the powers that “govern” and promote much needed trust in a decentralized world free from intermediaries. WFP’s Building Blocks project has established a blockchain infrastructure in Syrian refugee camps as a way for refugees to have a permanent verifiable identity, as well as an infrastructure to purchase goods and build credit free from a financial institution. In another world, SingularDTV’s blockchain has helped visualize a reformed entertainment industry platform that empowers artists and creators with tools to manage projects from development to peer-to-peer distribution. The possible applications for blockchain are boundless and they all center around the idea of human trust.

Speaking of human-centered technology, we’re hosting our annual summit, Solstice FWD — themed “Being Human: The Intersection of Humanity and Technology” — June 21 in Chicago. Learn more here.

This post was co-authored by Daniel Ley. Fan of the Dans? Connect with Dan Ahn and Daniel Ley.