Thought Leadership

SXSW 2016: The Future Is Here, It Just Needs a Better Interface

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“Two pizzas sitting on top of a stove top oven”

No, that’s not a description of my typical dinner at this year’s SXSW Interactive festival (although it’s close.) That simple phrase is proof of the amazing advances that have been made in the science of machine learning. The phrase was automatically generated by a computer as a caption for the image below.

By now most of us have seen apps capable of object recognition and classification, often described as “image recognition.” The Amazon app’s image search feature is just one example. As magical as these apps seem, they are really only capable of identifying a single prominent object in an image. They aren’t able to do something that is very easy for a human but vastly more complex: summarize a photo based on its setting, depicted activity and all objects in the scene.

Think about how much additional cognition is needed to summarize the photo above. It requires an understanding of how to count pizzas when they’re not in complete form. It requires understanding spatial concepts like “on top of.” It requires knowing that the wine glass and other elements in the photo aren’t important in summarizing the scene.

The capability above was just one of many Artificial Intelligence (AI) demonstrations I encountered at SXSW that opened my eyes to the impressive cognitive computing power now available, today, to every entrepreneur and brand. But if computer cognition has advanced so significantly and become so widely available, why don’t we see entrepreneurs and brands actually using it?

The answer is twofold. It’s partly a problem of imagination and partly a problem of user interface.

AI and Imagination
First, because AI is so unlike any tool businesses have used before, it’s difficult to envision the ways in which it can be applied. This hurdle will naturally be cleared in the next couple of years as innovative brands experiment with AI, establishing models that less innovative brands will then copy. But if you want to be one of those brands leading rather than following, one of the most helpful techniques I encountered at SXSW for imagining what’s possible with AI comes from Joanna Peña-Bickley (@jojobickley), Global Chief Creative Officer (and my new colleague) at IBM iX.

Peña-Bickley explains, “The cognitive era is not about dashboards. It’s about new capabilities for humans.” She suggests thinking about the superpowers you’d like to give your associates or customers. For example, AI can give a mechanic a kind of X-ray vision into the complex networks of sensors and computers on wheels that we call cars.

A Fresh Look at User Interface
The second reason we haven’t seen a lot of AI out in the wild is because it doesn’t fit the paradigms that our old user interfaces were designed to support. In other words, it needs a better interface. Luckily, there are lots of smart, passionate people tackling that problem.

The range of approaches for accessing AI and other modern computation are vast and imaginative. They include everything from speech interfaces, like Apple’s Siri or Amazon Echo’s Alexa, to robots designed to work alongside humans. Following is just a taste of what may be to come.

John Underkoffler, CEO of Oblong Industries and the genius behind the wild user interfaces seen in the movie “Minority Report,” showed some of his latest experiments in human -machine interaction. Here are some examples created with his open source Greenhouse SDK

Underkoffler has even taken many of the concepts invented for “Minority Report” and turned them into an approachable collaboration solution for the conference room called Mezzanine

Members of the MIT Media Lab presented their recent work exploring physical objects and materials that change shape based on their use…

SoftBank Robotic’s personal companion robot, Pepper, is already capable of reading human emotion, but it will soon be capable of much more, as IBM partners with the company to develop a new version of Pepper with Watson’s cognitive capabilities…

Rethink Robotics showcased the ways they’re designing robots like Baxter to be more like courteous coworkers…

Where We Go From Here
In his SXSW talk, “12 Inevitable Tech Forces That Will Shape Our Future,” Kevin Kelly posited that the formula for the next 10,000 startups will be “take X, add AI.” The challenge for brands will be to figure out what their X’s are and how AI can make them better. But you don’t have to do it alone. We have a lot of smart folks at Resource/Ammirati ready to help you imagine the possibilities and one especially smart artificial coworker ready to make them a reality.

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