From South by Southwest, the optimistic and dystopian visions of artificial intelligence — a technology that is becoming part of our daily lives.


We head to Austin now for the annual South by Southwest Conference in this week’s All Tech Considered.


CORNISH: Now, South by Southwest is known for the music, but running alongside the shows are panels that bring leaders across industries together to discuss what’s cutting edge. And one emerging technology being talked about a lot is artificial intelligence. For more on that, NPR’s Laura Sydell joins us from Austin. Hey there, Laura.


CORNISH: To begin, obviously, people are talking about AI across the tech industry. What is surprising or striking to you about South by Southwest picking it up this year?

SYDELL: Well, there are a lot of panels on it this year, and I think that’s because the panels are essentially decided by the people who are coming. And there were a lot on artificial intelligence because we’ve reached a point where computers are fast enough and the algorithms are good enough that artificial intelligence is really ready to take over the world. And you’re going to really start to see it out there, and that’s why people are talking about it here at South by.

CORNISH: And is this a dystopian (laughter) group or a group that’s more optimistic about the future of – use of artificial intelligence?

SYDELL: I would say the panels here are about 50 percent optimistic and 50 percent dystopian. On the optimistic side, you have things like robots in department stores that you can go up to and ask a question about, say, a pair of shoes you want. And the robot will know immediately whether they’re in stock in that store, and it will know exactly where they are if you can’t get them in that store. And that’s kind of the optimistic, fun stuff. We’re likely to start to see robots in children’s stores because children like robots. And I would say the dystopian view would be things like predictive policing.

For example, predictive policing relies on past patterns, and more often, there’s a lot of policing in minority communities. And therefore, it’ll start to look like, well, that’s where the crime is. We’re going to send more police into minority communities when, in fact, for example, with drugs, there may be plenty of people in white communities doing drugs, but because the police haven’t been there and making arrests, the predictive policing will not send them there in the future. And that’s part of the problem is that these biases can be written into artificial intelligence.

CORNISH: You know, last year, President Barack Obama spoke at South by Southwest. How are you seeing today’s political environment reflected in the discussion?

SYDELL: Well, there’s a whole track, actually, on Trump and tech. And in that, you’re seeing a lot more negative about the Trump administration. Obama had a very good relationship with the tech community. The concern now, of course, around immigration – the tech world relies a lot on bringing in talent from outside. There’s a lot of concern about that. There is a lot of concern about, for example, self-driving cars, which are likely to take away jobs for millions of Americans who drive cars. Will the Trump administration be friendly towards that?

On the positive side, because the Trump administration is less interested in regulating things, areas like drones may have openings. There’s a lot of regulations that have prevented drones in the United States. There are companies, for example, like Zipline, which is already delivering blood to rural areas in Rwanda. We can’t do that in the United States, and yet, there might be hospitals in rural areas in the United States that could use drones. Because there may be less regulation under Trump, we’re likely to see some areas of opening for tech as well.

CORNISH: That’s NPR’s Laura Sydell at South by Southwest in Austin. Thanks so much.

SYDELL: You’re welcome.

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