A Surprising Home for Emerging Tech – Top 5 SXSW Takeaways

Each year tech companies big and small descend on Austin, TX, to attend the South by Southwest (aka SXSW) tech, film, and music festival to talk about tech industry megatrends and how they may be harnessed to redefine the industry and launch the next big startup. There are plenty of SaaS startups and interesting software companies, but this year we saw companies like Daimler Truck showing off their autonomous vehicle capabilities, government organizations like NASA and the National Science Foundation talking about AI and quantum computing, and really fascinating advancements in AR and VR from companies like Niantic, creators of Pokémon Go.

Fortunately, Source De[Code] listeners will a leg up because you know about these buzzwords from our first season, but if you couldn’t make it to Austin, I've assembled my Top 5 Takeaways that tie back to our season 1. Let’s start decoding!

#1 – Digital Twins were Everything, Everywhere, All At Once

The most surprising but also most exciting revelation I got at SXSW was the prevalence of the digital twin. In my test engineering bubble, we really had strict definitions for the term digital twin and we talked about its main uses in Season 1. As a recap, we talked about the network digital twin modeled a real connection of devices and users and traffic, and the circuit digital modeled components and signals, all feeding back to the real world. But at SXSW the term digital twin was stretched way beyond what I would expect. The first was this idea of you personally having a digital twin in the metaverse, but it wasn’t necessarily metaverse exclusive. The term avatar has been thrown out a lot and my personal view is that it boxes this ideal of your digital presence into too much of a video game, virtual chat room concept. Your digital twin is your entire digital presence comprised of your information, your data, and your activity, and will soon be a complete parity version of yourself in the digital world. After a great talk by Dr. Sumbul Desai, who leads Apple’s Health program, it clicked in my head that your healthcare information is part of this digital twin that’s being built, allowing your doctor to prescribe you activity or medicine and monitor your digital twin while the real you is providing data back to that twin via your biometrics. The personal digital twin showed up the entire week, but it wasn’t the only different type of twin we heard about. Social twins, representations of society in a virtual environment, were thrown out as a tool to test and forecast human behavior. City twins were discussed in the context of climate change, where cities would need to be relocated due to flooding or environmental pressures, and therefore use a digital twin to model how that city could be rebuilt in a new location. The digital twin expanded far past our field of view in Source De[Code], and gets me really excited to see how much this term grows.

#2 – QuantumanAI Will Change Computing Forever

There was one talk that left me completely stunned at SXSW, and that was the CEO of Strangeworks whurley's keynote which was about how quantum computing is the accelerator AI needs to completely revolutionize computing. With the power of quantum computing, which can solve massively complex computing problems in a fraction of the time and processing that traditional computing would utilize, whurley predicted that computing will change more in the next 7 years than it has in the last 60. When you think about how far we've come from the computers the size of rooms to the current incredible computing we carry in our pockets every day, that seems like a staggering revolution. The talk covered the ideas of a quantum-enabled artificial general intelligence, which would be capable of solving problems alongside us like our own personal assistants to help us work quickly and efficiently, and the idea of an artificial super-intelligence, which could be the last thing humanity invented as it would do all the invention from there on out. While he covered the ways in which quantum-powered AI could be scary, there were infinitely more futures where AI delivered tools to help all of mankind. The kicker of this talk was at the very end, it was revealed that the entire talk, the slides, and the artwork used were all generated by artificial intelligence, 24 hours prior to the talk. It’s hard to capture how much of a chill went through the audience when that happened, but it became immediately clear that the age of generative AI is upon us. Now, this wasn’t the only talk where we saw AI come up, we also heard Arati Prabhakar, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy talk about the need for AI collaboration and funding research into these initiatives throughout the US, and new programs like NAIRR, the National AI Research Resource task force, who are leading the charge at making sure AI is a tool everyone can use.

#3 – AR & VR Glasses Replacing Your Phone is a When, Not an If

The metaverse was a hot topic this SXSW, but the hottest buzz was around the world of Extended Reality (XR), whether that was storytelling in virtual reality (VR) or all the use cases for augmented reality (AR). There were plenty of discussions if these technologies are ready for prime time, and the answers varied from “the hardware is as good as it gets” to “we’re just at the starting line”. But the consensus across the board was that these wearables will replace the flat screen that we carry in our pockets today. We’ve already seen the headphone jack being removed from phones in favor of earbuds, and long gone are the days of having keyboards on phones. But the consumer applications like gaming and entertainment won’t be the driving factor. Training using XR is the “killer app” for this market, and there are already headsets deployed throughout Walmart’s across the country for the sole purpose of training employees. Soon nurses will be wearing AR glasses that give real-time heads up of where your veins are located with the assistance of your digital twin and AI that can model overlays so an IV or drawing blood never misses. Training for first responders that can be localized and designed around specific buildings in their area means that first responders know exactly how to handle critical situations because they’ve run through the exact space before. I even saw one company that had built an entire tool for interfacing with agricultural data on cows on a farm to individually be able to interact with characterize care for each cow based on pattern recognition that created individual overlays. The use cases that will drive this innovation are there, and now it’s just a matter of time for the tools to catch up, and I’ll be that phone stays in your pocket more often than not in the next 5 years.

#4 – Your Big Data is on Display

In light of this pervasive idea of your digital twin existing alongside you, the term big data was thrown around a lot at SXSW, but particularly in the context of your data. With wearables on the rise, many talks pointed out that biometrics like eye tracking and body heat could be measured and correlated with your interests, and the level of understanding companies can have about your person increases dramatically. In nearly every talk I went to about some of these big trends, there was a lawyer or a policy advisor asking about the protection of personal data and how this data would be used. When you consider how much data a general artificial intelligence would take from you as your personal assistant or the amount of information you would need to reconstitute yourself in the metaverse, what companies can do with that data and how that data is encrypted and shared with only the people you want it shared with becomes of even greater concern than our current level of data sharing.

#5 – All These Buzzwords Need Testing

Reinforced in these discussions of new computing paradigms and next-generation artificial intelligence was how much we don’t know about how these things will perform in the real world. Artificial intelligence is still very much a black box of decision-making, and training and reinforcing algorithms to make the “right” decision consistently is a challenge in so many industries. Innovative battery architectures and scaling down of silicon were emphasized by industry and academia alike in order to make AR and VR hardware become ubiquitous, and the engineers in the room were called out to make these things happen. All these research and design advancements are critically relying on the capabilities of test to be successful, and the tools will only be as good as the testing allows. In whurley’s keynote, he emphasized that the paradigm of “move fast and break things” isn't acceptable in the world of powerful quantum computing AI’s, and so we have to design things right the first time which takes careful design and meticulous implementation processes. But those things are all happening in parallel of some of the fastest technology advancements and a need to build better products faster and reduce time to market to meet demands. The only way that happens is by relying on testbeds that can act as common ground to solve problems rapidly with the best and brightest from around the industry. The National Science Foundation was at the expo hall talking about their new initiative TIP (Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships), which is trying to foster better exchange between industry and academic, private and public, to build research tools and testbeds that better connect segmented industries. It was clear everywhere you looked at SXSW that testing was bread and butter to make these dreams of the future a reality.

If you missed SXSW or want to get deeper into some of the technology we saw on display there, check out the entire first season of Source De[Code], now available on keysight.com/find/sourcedecode or where you get your podcasts! And if you’re already a fan, be sure to hop on the mailing list so you can stay tuned for what’s in store in the future and get more updates like these throughout the year.