AI, human connection, and the future of work

Get our takeaways from this year's SXSW Conference, where speakers explored what it means both to live and work together and alongside artificial intelligence.

March 14, 2024
Jarrod, Head of Brand Strategy, has worked with leading brands on the adoption of emerging technologies.
5 min read
5 min read
March 14, 2024
Jarrod, Head of Brand Strategy, has worked with leading brands on the adoption of emerging technologies.

South by Southwest (SXSW) — an annual festival celebrating tech, film, culture, and more — took over downtown Austin, Texas this past week, with no shortage of things to experience everywhere you turned. The tenor of the talks varied widely, with tracks dedicated to everything from the workplace to psychedelics, making the conference both endlessly interesting and nearly impossible to summarize.

Still, we dialed into a few themes we heard across talks, stitching together snippets to form our own view of what we think we’ll see more of in the year ahead. From film premieres to product announcements, SXSW is the start of many cultural moments, but we zeroed in on three themes that feel more mature in an effort to focus less on what could happen and more on what will be.

1. Industry-specific AI will lead the way

From the start of “South by” — as it’s colloquially known — AI was in the air. From scripted keynotes to fireside chats, machine learning, neural networks, and autonomous decision-making popped up in dialogue, even when AI wasn’t the express topic at hand. For as ubiquitous as talk of the technology has been over the past year, this wasn’t surprising in and of itself. However, what was interesting was the emphasis business leaders — both technical and non-technical — placed on industry-specific solutions.

In a talk about how his company is using new technologies to build a modern media entity, Phil Wiser, Chief Technology officer at Paramount, said, “I know all too well that a lot of times, the technology teams think they’ve figured out the future of media up in Silicon Valley…and it misses the mark in terms of what the creative team needs.” As a creative company, Wiser wants Paramount to help steer the direction of AI technologies from leading companies such as Google and OpenAI, but also emphasized “it’s not just about the big players.” He shared that he’s actually most excited by “the people that are cobbling together a wide range of technology” that can be put to more immediate practical use in media.

In a different talk focused on the healthcare industry, a similar theme was the center of the discussion with a talk titled “Clinical AI is Not Just Any AI.” Panelists Dr. Charles Fisher of Unlearn, Dr. Karim Galil of Mendel AI, and Dr. Larry LaPointe of Quest Diagnostics all spoke about the limitations of industry-agnostic AI solutions and the reasons why standard large language models (LLMs) — the kind of technology that powers ChatGPT — are as yet too unreliable to adopt in medicine. (Think: The kind of situations where LLM hallucinations — when made-up results are generated without any clear rationale — could mean literal life or death.)

Talk of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) was still in play — Peter Deng, Head Of ChatGPT, made the bold claim during his session that “AI fundamentally makes us more human” — but again and again, across talks tailored to different industries, the message from leaders was: We need AI tools built specifically for us, not necessarily for everyone.

Esther Perel in conversation with Trevor Noah alongside an ASL translator

2. Human connection is still a culture-driver

Coexisting with questions about our relationship to technology, another prevailing theme was a fundamental focus on what it means to be human in today’s day and age. More so than any other idea, this was perhaps the most omnipresent — obvious in the conversations about equity and justice, offline creativity, and communication, and subtle in the dynamics between panelists, facilitators, and attendees who often seemed genuinely eager to interact with each other.

In a standout session on the role of humor in hard times, renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel shared the stage with comedian Trevor Noah, revealing that prior to their talk, they had asked each other what they most wanted to learn from the other person. (Esther wanted to learn more about what it is to be in front of an audience; Trevor wanted to learn how to better listen.) It was but a footnote in the arc of the conversation, but it was nonetheless striking to see two towering figures in their respective fields modeling what it is to acknowledge they still have things to learn.

"There are few tools in our society that are more important than how to listen."

—Trevor Noah

In a lighter, more freewheeling conversation, the minds behind the upcoming film “Babes” talked with Samantha Bee about motherhood, womanhood in Hollywood, and things they wished they’d known ahead of their starts in the working world. Here, human connection was specifically about women’s connection to other women in the support of each other’s choices, challenges, and causes.

The theme of connection was present off the SXSW stages, too, in happy hours and social settings where it seemed people were perhaps still reacclimating to being so close to each other in real life and not through the medium of a screen.

All in all, what we observed affirms there is still very much a place for human-centered work that puts people — their needs, wants, and idiosyncrasies — at the center of the conversation. Whether it be brands, storytellers, or other individuals doing that work, the culture they create will undoubtedly be powered by human connection.

Jane Thier in conversation with Annie Dean 

3. The future of work is about choice

“The future doesn’t happen to you. You create it through the decisions that you make today,” said futurist Trista Harris in a panel discussion on futures thinking — a sound reminder about our autonomy in the face of the unknown. Trista, in conversation with fellow futurist Jessica Clark and labor economist Lori Melichar, referenced entertainment in offering up either “a ‘Hunger Games’ future” or “a ‘Star Trek’ future,” further driving home the point: The choice is ours.

Trista’s panel was about the future, broadly, focusing on how organizations can adopt ways of thinking about the future to better identify coming problem or opportunity areas years ahead of time. Across the hall, Jane Thier of Fortune, and Annie Dean, Head of Team Anywhere at Atlassian, delivered a similar, but more specific, message about the future of work.

Dean spouted stat after stat about how distributed work — once described as “the future” — is actually happening now, and it’s a working model that’s valuable to businesses in ways they can meaningfully quantify. She was clear that her vision of distributed knowledge work is not necessarily about everyone at home on a screen, but rather about choice: Allowing people to self-elect into the working dynamic that is right for them and the nature of their responsibilities.

“The fact that work is happening on the internet is non-controversial,” she said. “However, it is a change,” which can’t be driven without clarity. Dean emphasized the need for business leaders to be clear about what kinds of work outcomes they want so the way people work can be optimized for those outcomes. “This way of working feels better to people,” Dean said.

Certainly, we'll be leaving SXSW this year feeling better ourselves for having learned from her work and for gaining a better sense from all of this year's speakers about the future that lies ahead.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can listen or watch the SXSW talks mentioned in this article here:

As of the time of this writing, “‘Where Should We Begin?’ Live with Esther Perel Featuring Trevor Noah” does not have any associated audio or video, but the podcast episode may eventually be published here or here.

More recordings can be found by searching the SXSW 2024 Schedule, and select sessions are posted on the SXSW YouTube channel and the SXSW video archive.