SXSW 2018: A day-one rundown.

By John Mose

With the first day of SXSW drawing to a close, here are my newbie observations regarding the world’s most exciting place to be – March 2018 edition:

My favorite Friday session was “What AI Reveals About Our Place in the Universe,” hosted by Nikos Acuna and featuring cosmologist/intellectual superstar Sean Carroll of Caltech. Acuna and Carroll were joined by AI expert Louis Rosenberg and neurologist David Eagleman for a fascinating discussion that ranged from particle physics to how our brains work to what honeybees can teach us about super-intelligence.

Among the things I learned were:

  • For all it’s sophistication, modern particle physics has no explanation for the arrow of time. Newton, Einstein and Feynman’s discoveries and laws all work perfectly in this world, and would work just as well in a world in which time flows backwards.
  • Despite the advances in magnetic imaging, we have only the most shallow of understanding of how the brain works and the role that neurons play in thought, memory or volition.
  • The greatest limiting factor of human intelligence is the size of our skulls. If human intelligence is going to continue to evolve and grow, we’ll need to find some way to expand our neural pathways beyond the limits of our braincases. If you are seriously concerned about the rise of super-intelligent AI (like all right-thinking people should be), this is the most significant hurdle humans have faced in our evolution.
  • Our understanding of reality is seriously limited by the range of our five senses. But current technology is developing ways for us to add senses that other species already possess, like the ability to detect the Earth’s magnetic field, or to see a larger slice of the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • One possible future for humanity could be our assembly into large-group “hive minds” that provide a form of super-intelligence that can keep pace or even outstrip possible non-organic AIs. If this sounds off-putting, consider a likely alternative of species irrelevance or extinction.

With the AI session ended on that cheery note, I was able to rush to attend Friday’s most-talked about session: CNN’s Jake Tapper and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ discussion of key issues in the news. Sanders was fired up, funny, voluble and volatile – in short, a bravura campaign performance. What was he campaigning for? He was in support of Democrats across the country in the 2018 midterms. (He himself is up for re-election this year.) But the not-so-subtle subtext was a likely 2020 bid for the White House.

The DC Comics brand activation featured not one, but three different versions of cinematic Batmobiles. While all equally cool (even Val Kilmer’s ride), none of them were the coolest-of-them-all 1966 classic featured in the Adam West-starring TV show.  Still, I hummed the theme song to myself as I poked and prodded the three bat-vehicles.

There’s almost as much talk about the food you can consume and the beer you can drink at the festival as there is about the sessions you can attend. One restaurant very close to the conference center has the ambitious name of The International House of Pancakes. I’ve been told you can get five kinds of syrup there. Who knew?

On tomorrow’s schedule? A discussion of robotic household servants, comedian Bill Hader discussing his new HBO series, a session on the “Secrets of Cult Brands” (I’m assuming this isn’t Heaven’s Gate, they mean) and the reinvention of retail stores. A busy day in which I’m also hoping to eat some barbecue.