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Day 1: SXSW: A place that fuels the relentless pursuit of insight and inspiration

Think back to your time at school or university. Were the classrooms and lecture halls rammed with enthusiastic students a full 20-minutes before the start of a lesson? No, I didn’t think so. And yet this is precisely what we see at SXSW. A 10-day festival in Austin, Texas, that brings together more than 70,000 people from around the world who are deeply passionate about technology, film, social policy, creativity and everything in between. It is a festival that has become a fixture in many of our calendars as we come in search of inspiration, education, and application.

Day 1 began with the fascinating and funny talk from the author Daniel Pink who shared The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.

Daniel explained that simple questions, such as “what time of day should I do my workout” should be answered with purposeful discipline, because there are in fact evidence-based ways to make smarter timing decisions. We believe that timing is an art, but really, it’s a science. Science shows that the hidden pattern of our day profoundly affects our mood and performance. Our emotional balance and performance rises in the morning, dips in the afternoon, and then rises again in the evening. Whilst this may seem intuitive, most of us lack the discipline to factor this knowledge into our daily lives. This is reckless behavior. Analysis of 26,000 quarterly earnings calls carried out by 2,100 companies over a period of 6.5 years revealed that the emotions expressed on those calls changed over the course of the day, so that afternoon earnings calls resulted in higher levels of irritation and more negative responses than calls held in the morning. The effect of that heightened level of combativeness led to temporary stock mispricing. Daniel then gave an example from healthcare, where data revealed that anesthesia errors are four times more likely at 3pm than at 9am. That’s because our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of the day.

So, what should we do in our everyday working lives? Well, for a start, we should stop organising meetings based simply upon the availability of the attendees but rather, think about the task you want to solve and plan accordingly. You should do your analytical reports in the morning, your administrative work around lunchtime, and save your creative brainstorms for when your second peak hits in the afternoon or early evening. When time of day effects explain a 20% variance in human performance, we owe it to ourselves to be more deliberate in how we treat our own and each other’s time.

Next up was filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who delivered a wonderful Film Keynote outlining the 10 Commandments of Indie Film. As I wrote each one down, they seemed to me to be excellent reminders for anyone who has a creative purpose.

1. Make the film that only you can make. This applies equally to writers, designers, and craftsmen. We are living in a time when people are demanding all sorts of authentic and diverse voices. As brands and agencies mine the data in order to determine what people want, and then manufacture that product or content accordingly, so the independent filmmaker (or artist) must be resilient and create the work that they believe in, not the work that the data will predict.

2. Persistence is 90% of the game. Aronofsky actually said it was probably more like ‘well over 50%’ but that’s not quite as memorable!

3. Collaboration is key. Ideas can come from anywhere and you need to be democratic and humble in how you receive them. If an idea is better than yours, use it. And if it’s different, well then you have a choice to make.

4. Do your homework. 
Do as much as you can before you get to the set because once the filming begins, time moves quickly!

5. Allow for Procrastination. 
Don’t think of breaks as a deviation from work. Think of them as a crucial part of the work.

6. Adapt to Reality. 
Turn your restrictions into an advantage.

7. Create an Environment of Trust.
 The role of a filmmaker is to create the environment in which the actors, actresses, and crew feel safe to express themselves and to be vulnerable. Making a movie is a family affair and you must treat everyone on the set equally.  Again, this is a mission that all great teams and companies should pursue.

8. Commit to the Vision. See things through to the end.

9. Let go of your child. Rather than tinker endlessly with making incremental improvements to a project, it’s important to know when it’s time to draw the line and put your efforts into your next challenge.

10. Give a Shit. Art is about disruption, especially today. Telling the stories that matter, and making something deeply human that connects with others is what it’s all about.

With that uplifting conclusion, I moved over to my third session, Exploring Innovations in A.I. It was both provocative and sobering, as the panelists debated whether human beings will remain the most intelligent species in years to come.

Whilst there was agreement that AI’s achievements over the past 10 years have been significant (consider IBM Watson correctly answering the questions on Jeopardy in 2011, the Sony AIBO robot dog doing a dance after it scored a goal, and the fact that nuanced language translation now a reality), there was disagreement as to whether our future will be as bleak as Elon Musk suggests with Skynet scheming against us, or if even Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that we’ll have human level AI by 2029 is likely. Adam Cheyer (who was co-founder and VP Engineering at Siri) suggested that we’re only 1,000 years away from AI having the intelligence to challenge humans, whilst Daphne Koller (Chief Computing Officer at Calico Labs) said that AI needs to be able to learn from small data sets before it’s able to truly make the next great leap. The example she gave was, you only need to tell a toddler a couple of times what a puppy is and she’ll be able to recognise any puppy after that. But AI needs many more data inputs to be able to make that same connection. In the meantime, Koller said that AI can work towards making inroads in the agriculture, energy, and healthcare space and offer a real contribution to humanity.

Nell Watson (AI & Robotics Faculty member at the Singularity University) added an ethical dimension to the discussion and suggested that in the future, AI could learn to be kind and compassionate. It’s an interesting concept because AI learns by analyzing the data that’s available today. We know all too well that our data contains the biases that are inherent in our society. If we want AI to not reflect our inequalities and flaws, we need to allow it to go beyond the decision-making patterns and moral codes that got us to this point, and instead allow AI to be free to create its own solutions. And that’s a scenario that demands careful consideration.

Keeping with the AI theme but grounding it in a business context, I went over to the session entitled How AI is Revolutionizing the World of Film and TV.

Manoj Saxena (most recently General Manager of IBM Watson) was quick to give us a reality check about what AI can and can’t do. He joked that AI stands for both Amazing Innovation and Artificially Inflated. Whilst there is considerable fear that AI will displace jobs, we must remember that AI will also augment jobs, helping and guiding us in our tasks so that one day soon ‘everyone will have an Iron Man JARVIS suit’ of sorts. Cameron Davies (SVP Decision Sciences, NBCU) explained they are using AI to augment business decisions, analyzing data around past Super Bowl spots in order to guide on who should be cast in TV spots, and creating better engagement models for their advertising campaigns. The idea that AI will write entire film scripts was dismissed because storytelling is fundamental to who we are as a species. But where AI can add value is in helping us access smarter, sharper insights faster in order to super-charge our creative process, as well as heighten business outcomes.

I left the convention center exhilarated and a tad overwhelmed, with a notepad full of notes and a mind spinning with ideas. For the next few days, we’re all students again, exposing ourselves to different theories and perspectives and it’s fantastic.

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