What SXSW got right on AI — and what it missed, according to Hearts & Science’s Wilson Standish

Anyone who attended South by Southwest in the three or so years before Covid hit might have gone into this year’s event thinking they were going to get bedazzled by all sorts of experiential activations. Turns out, it was a more sober and serious conference in 2023, according to Wilson Standish, the head of content and creativity at Omnicom Media Group’s Hearts & Science agency. 

Standish, who has attended about a dozen SXSWs in Austin, Texas (but not last year’s), was a bit surprised at the general sentiment he noticed this year, which was something like ‘let’s get down to business and talk about what’s important’ rather than parties and barbecue. To him, it was more reminiscent of SXSW’s earlier years. 

“A lot of brands didn’t know what the attendance was going to be like, so there were less brand events and activations, and a much bigger focus on just attending panels and on ideas,” said Standish, whose experience includes stints at Spotify and Gimlet Media. “I think a lot of that has to do with people wanting to figure out and understand this new climate, this post COVID consumer, as well as understanding the impacts of AI.”

Standish shared some of his thoughts on topics discussed — and neglected — at the festival this year. His comments have been edited for space and clarity. 

From an attendee standpoint, people are very excited. It feels like, once again, South By has this thing that’s happening, that’s really changing technology and changing the way we interact with it. The goal of any tech company is to become a verb — and really, we’re seeing Chat GPT become a verb. It’s like, ‘I Airbnb it,’ ‘I Google it,’ ‘I Uber it,’ and now ‘I Chat GPT it.’

But the experts and the panelists had a lot of reservation around the ethics. I think one of the key pieces is [that] it’s still machine learning and we’re not at true AI. And so you have people that need to feed it information, and you have people that validate what’s true and what’s not. And there’s not [currently] a lot of transparency [around] who are the people that are validating it and what kind of bias might they have. People are still very realistic about the amount of bias that comes up in machine learning and in what’s being called AI.

How far does this go into the world of marketing and media?  

These engines are more powerful with the more data they have. And I think that the challenge is, there’s no government regulation around this space right now. So all the different engines are just trying to absorb as much data as possible and create new data. Where that really goes into our media world is data privacy. What data is ethical to capture? What data is ethical to model against? These AI engines have such an advantage, if they have more data, they’re looking at all new places that the average consumer might not be aware of. 

What’s not being talked about when it comes to AI, at least at SXSW? 

People are talking about data privacy. But I think what they’re not making the connection to right now is that Web 3 is a great solution when it comes to anonymizing data and data privacy. A lot of the people that are in Web 3 right now are the early adopters. But as consumers become more aware of how much of this really intimate data is being tracked — like online schooling for kids and what music is playing in the background, or are they cooking, or where their kids eyes are going? As that awareness [grows], you could see more and more consumers turning to a Web 3, decentralized data approach as a way to protect themselves. That way, the engines would still get the information, but it would be much more secure, and even ownable by the user.

Any talk of government involvement in privacy legislation and the chance they’re not as well informed on the nuances of data privacy around AI? 

They [the government] are going to be slower than [the speed at which] this evolves. So we need to be self regulating a little bit.

One really interesting conversation that I did attend was AI in the newsroom, because journalists are the category that’s really having to face how to utilize this technology much sooner than any industry. Local papers and local journalists are asked to do more with fewer reporters and far less resources. This is an amazing augmentation tool, right? So the conversation really becomes around copyright ownership, transparency, objectivity. 

The first day [of SXSW], the co founder of Open AI had an interesting quote, where he [said], ‘This is meant to amplify human ability, not replace it.’ And I think especially in journalism, you’re seeing that. You’re seeing that human augmentation as a result of leveraging this technology.

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