June 19, 2018


Recap and Key Insights about the Future of Intelligent Systems

Background: The SPRING program is a collaboration between RTI Innovation Advisors and the Innovation Research Interchange (IRI) to explore emerging trends and their impact on innovation management. Together, SPRING team members and program participants (you) engage in a structured foresight process to help build confidence and conviction about the steps organizations can take to prepare for the future. This year, SPRING is exploring the future of intelligent systems.

The SPRING program includes a variety of activities from field trips and workshops to curated content modules and webinars, culminating in a two-day conference at RTI Headquarters on October 23 and 24, 2018. For more information about SPRINGBOARD and to register for the conference, check out our website. To sign up to be a part of the SPRING program, click here.

SPRING Program Elements: The SPRING program has five different types of program elements: learning modules, trend immersions, workshops, thought leader interviews, and a capstone two-day conference event. This report is a summary of a recent trend immersion.

Trend Immersions are opportunities to experience signals of emerging trends firsthand by getting out of our offices and interacting with the technologies, visionaries, and companies shaping the future. These firsthand experiences stretch our thinking and lead to insights that would not be obtained from reading about them.

Description: Even though one of the core premises of a trend immersion is that you have to be there to get the full effect, we have done our best to bring back some signals and insights from SXSW2018. We have intentionally (and atypically) put our insights at the end of this report. Our insights are not the point. Your insights are. Instead, this recap attempts to re‑create some of the experiences of attending SXSW, as we explored the future of Intelligent Systems and gives suggestions about creating your own mini-immersion here after the fact.

Format: As with all of our content for SPRING, we provide different levels of engagement. The first is the CRASH COURSE, designed to be completed in 30 min to 1 hour. Next is a DEEP DIVE, which you can engage with selectively (or in whole) to get even more information on a topic. In this case, the DEEP DIVE content aims to re-create conference experiences through videos and pictures from the event.


Review SXSW Trends and the Conference Program

Perhaps the quickest way to get a feel for what occurred at SXSW this year is to peruse the conference program. Particularly relevant to the SPRING theme of Intelligent Systems, SXSW had an entire conference track with over 100 sessions dedicated to “Intelligent Futures”. Other related conference tracks explored the future of cities, emerging trends in VR/AR, and industry-specific tracks like food and health care. Of course, SXSW is always a hotbed for emerging startups and features a track dedicated to startups and emerging technology like bitcoin.

The first task in this crash course is to spend 20–30 minutes reviewing the conference program using the links above. Look for trends in programming that may be relevant to your business. Observe the sessions that generated encore performances. Note the prevalence of discussions around topics of interest to your organization.

Read RTI Expert Perspectives

RTI sent five experts to SXSW to attend sessions, observe trends, meet emerging startups, and, even in one instance, present at the SXSW EDU conference! Three of these RTI experts share their unique observations and key takeaways from this year’s conference.

RTI Expert Perspectives

Jim Redden

Background: Jim is part of RTI’s Innovation Advisors team where he specializes in emerging technology trends and innovation capacity building inside organizations.  (Full bio)

Areas of Expertise: Emerging technology trends, human-centered design, organizational foresight, innovation labs, new technology commercialization, innovation ecosystems

Contact: jredden@rti.org

What was your primary reason for attending SXSW?

I came to SXSW to understand emerging trends related to intelligent systems. I tried to come with a learner’s mindset—really trying to soak up everything I could. I was looking to not only hear what the experts on the stage had to say but also wanted to interact with other SXSW-goers and hear how they are thinking about the hot new buzzwords like artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain.

What were the most impactful experiences from SXSW?

There really is no substitute for walking around the expo floor and talking with people. It was amazing to see just how many exhibitors were using the formula “AI or robotics applied to X.” Yamaha was showing off a piano that incorporated AI. Briggo had a robot barista that served me coffee made to order. There were quite a few startups aimed at helping companies embed AI in their products or support an organization’s data scientists with new software tools. The prevailing sentiment amongst most people I talked to was that, “duh, of course AI is going to be embedded in everything—the winners will be the ones that figure it out first.”

There were so many good keynotes/sessions it is hard to choose the most impactful. Related to intelligent systems, the Tech Trends Report that Future Institute Today debuted provided a very user friendly guide to key trends in AI and Machine Learning. The most eye opening talk for me personally was listening to a moderated discussion with research and development (R&D) leaders at Coca-Cola discuss how AI and robotics are dramatically reducing product development and testing times. In fact, AI analytics from customer interactions led to the creation of Cherry Sprite—a new take on customer-driven innovation.

Lastly, with the exception of a keynote by Elon Musk, the prevailing sentiment among speakers I heard was that AI tools will augment human capabilities rather than replace them. There were quite a few sessions that addressed the surrounding implications of a world where AI is pervasive—from ethical issues like algorithmic bias to societal issues like the future of work. I walked away with a newfound appreciation for just how different the world might be in 10 years. It’s not a sentiment I would have felt in the same way without attending SXSW.

“I walked away with a newfound appreciation for just how different the world might be in 10 years. It’s not a sentiment I would have felt in the same way without attending SXSW.”

What were your top three takeaways from the week?

  1. Intelligent Systems (AI, machine learning, and robotics) will drive significant efficiency gains across a whole host of organizational functions—from R&D to manufacturing to marketing and customer engagement in the very near future. Figuring out how to incorporate these technologies is less of a strategy to get ahead and will soon be necessary to ensure that organizations stay competitive.
  2. Many people are curious about blockchain, but aspects of the technology infrastructure—along with use cases and regulations—are still being worked out. Finance and Health care are keenly aware of the technology’s potential and most of the big companies are experimenting in the space. New entrants are excited and have grand visions; established companies are afraid of disintermediation.
  3. Well defined and compelling use cases will drive adoption. From talking to other participants, I got the sense that this is the question most plaguing business leaders. Many know that AI is a transformative technology, and many even have an AI strategy. But finding and applying AI to specific use cases remains a difficult task.

There were many more interesting observations about VR/AR, the future of health care, and cultural movements that I saw (and felt) at SXSW. You may read my key takeaways and say, “I already knew those—these statements are not that insightful.” I would encourage you to dig in to some of the other SXSW recap materials here. While only a poor approximation of the experience, digging deeper will help you take the insights above and answer—what does this mean for my organization?

Leslie Wainwright

Background: Leslie is part of RTI’s Innovation Advisors team where she is tasked with increasing our presence in the health sector. She specializes in emerging technology trends, business model creation, and innovation capacity across the health ecosystem. (Full Bio)

Areas of Expertise: Health care strategy, business model innovation, emerging technologies, design thinking

Contact: lwainwright@rti.org

What was your primary reason for attending SXSW?

Health care is undergoing unprecedented change. Thriving during this time of uncertainty is going to require that technology developers push their limits and create new tools and cutting-edge solutions. Similarly, care providers are going to need to openly embrace new ways of working and recognize that technology has a pivotal role to play in enhancing their delivery of high value health care.

There is no shortage of health care conferences, but most are very deep in a specific topic area. SXSW, by design, is cross-cutting and allows participants access to global experts from different industry sectors who offer multiple opinions on what the future holds. Technology experts also share provocative perspectives on how disruptive platforms will evolve. After attending enough sessions, one can see recurring themes and essential interdependencies that will influence how quickly specific technologies will develop enough to have a meaningful impact.

  • Pediatric Innovation Competition—This full-day event brought leading children’s hospitals and entrepreneurs together. Although there is nothing novel [anymore] about pitch competitions, holding one to specifically promote pediatric technologies is indeed notable. Pediatrics inventors have struggled mightily, since the market potential is limited. It is not uncommon for promising tools to never make it to market because the return-on-investment (ROI) economics don’t work. SXSW aims to do their part. This program convenes inventors, venture investors, and hospital innovation executives. If the history of success of past challenge winners is any indication, this inspirational program at SXSW is doing its small part to move the field of pediatrics forward.
  • Space Health—This program talked about health care in a tin can and showcased specific ways that solving for health needs in space is having a direct impact on delivery of health care on Earth. Dorit Donoviel, who leads the venture arm of NASA’s program for translational research, led Bill Cohen, Esther Dyson, Mike McConnell, and Lee Shapiro in a conversation that addressed the challenges of data transmission, engineering complexities at zero gravity, next-generation wearables, and the essentials of extreme battery life. I left in awe of human ingenuity and excited that we’re actively working to develop health technologies needed for deep space missions.
  • The Future of Artificial Intelligence—This program embodied what SXSW is all about. Four AI leaders: Adam Cheyer, Nell Watson, Daphne Koller, and Loicle Meur debated the technical, ethical, and philosophical distinctions between human intelligence, applied intelligence, and artificial intelligence. One of the most provocative conversation topics focused on the free market and what a robot-led economy might look like. Adam Cheyer, who co-developed Siri, was notable since he commented that he has been in the AI field for 30 years. He said that he has seen advances in the past 8–10 years that he never dreamed to see in his lifetime.

“An overarching theme was that the pace of new technology development is outpacing Moore’s Law. This means that R&D breakthroughs will come faster and faster and we need to ensure we’re ready. We’re FAR from ready.”

What were your top three takeaways from the week?

  1. Connectivity between humans and machines is becoming stronger and getting closer to the concept of singularity. While advances in smart homes, humanoid assist robots, and artificial intelligence will solve many problems, they will also introduce many new social and ethical challenges. This is no longer the stuff of science fiction; instead, it is the not-so-distant reality that many of us will experience these advances in our lifetime. We have a role to play in how these conversations unfold.
  2. STEM matters now more than ever. I have been a long-time supporter of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, especially for girls. There was not a SXSW session that I attended that didn’t require a STEM skill set. STEM disciplines are the basis of our future economy and the engine for jobs creation. Dean Kamen’s global robotics competitions [FIRST] are both a testimony and articulation as to how important this is.
  3. Blockchain is still largely hype. Perhaps history will prove me wrong, but blockchain is the current 2018 “bright shiny object” and entrepreneurial buzz word. Buyer beware— if/when it comes up, ask many questions.

Angel Hedberg

Background: Angel is a corporate strategy manager at RTI International. Her primary responsibilities include environmental scanning and analyses of trends, competitor performance and markets to inform growth, business development, and client relationship management strategies. She brings a unique perspective to intelligence and the dynamics of collaboration and knowledge sharing as a result of 14 years of experience across market intelligence, strategy and business development planning, sales and operations training, and pipeline management.

Areas of Expertise: business problem identification, articulation, and communication; strategic planning; competitive intelligence; and foresight

Contact: ahedberg@rti.org

What was your primary reason for attending SXSW?

I attend various tech conferences to network and understand emerging trends and their relevance to RTI. I love learning and am definitely drawn to conferences based on the programming and speakers. This was my first time to SXSW, so I was eager to see whether it lived up to the hype.

What were the most impactful experiences from SXSW?

Many people are drawn to SXSW because of the big-name headliners (i.e., Elon Musk) and other keynote speakers. Perhaps my expectations were too high for the scripted talks, but I didn’t find the content in them very groundbreaking. However, the panel discussions were much more compelling and insightful. For example, listening to John Mackey (founder of Whole Foods) discuss the future of capitalism with Kesha Cash (partner, Impact America), I observed the unscripted tension on the stage as conflicting viewpoints were presented.

Therein lies some of the true value of attending SXSW: participating with people—both keynote speakers and participants—as they wrestled with the tension embedded in alternative views of the future and tried to determine where industries, technologies, and social movements might be headed. As such, I learned as much from my interactions with other conference goers as I did from those on the stage.

Another intriguing thread I followed at SXSW was the sessions related to the impact of AI on human behavior. We are only starting to understand the larger societal and systems-level impacts that this emerging technology will have on our world. For example, one presenter stated that “by treating AI like slaves, we are dehumanizing ourselves.” She recounted a story of her daughter learning to interact with Amazon’s Alexa and then proceeding to transfer that behavior and commanding her parents in a similar language and tone. We have made the design choice that nearly all digital personal assistants have female voices. One could easily see how behavior transfer might occur as a result that increases gender inequality in unintended ways. I am excited to continue to explore ways in which RTI’s deep bench of social scientists might play a role in answering some of the new and pressing questions that will result from the evolution of these technologies.

“If we treat AI like it’s not human, we will begin to change our own social behavior…who is looking at the impact of the confluence of these technologies at the systems level? These questions do not benefit any one company but point to an area of human need.”

What were your top three takeaways from the week?

  1. More people should be thinking about creating technologies that impart empathy and ethics at a systems level. Admittedly, the words empathy and ethics are inadequate to convey the nebulous and ill-defined challenges that will arise from the systemic deployment of AI. Many people are already thinking about the biases that algorithms introduce—and this work needs to continue. Perhaps more importantly, though—how are these systems altering our behavior as a society? There is a big white space that social science can help address as these systems evolve.
  2. Go to SXSW to engage with other participants and find partners. In this digital era, you can get all of the SXSW content from home for free. What you can’t get is the interactions with other participants. At SXSW, you can ask people sitting next to you in a session what questions are top of mind for them or how their organizations are responding to current trends. You can learn from conversations how business models are evolving. You can grab dinner with potential partners or meet emerging startups in a particular sector. You can’t do any of that from your couch.
  3. Technologists and sales teams are leading companies in the next wave of disruption. In many established companies or legacy industries, leaders drive top-level decisions with a focus on risk-mitigation. In this new era of unicorns and major disruptors, the technologists and those closest to the customers (often sales) are now in the lead. It brings me back to the (excellent) keynote given by Ezra Klein where he pointed out that structures drive decision making. He made the point in the context of political systems, but I think it is just as interesting to observe how leadership structures are driving business decision making and innovation.


While there is no way to completely re-create the experience of being at SXSW, many of the recorded sessions and media coverage of the conference can give you enough of a taste to develop your own insights. I would encourage you to engage with some of the content below that is outside of your typical area of expertise or day-to-day role. The intersectionality of cultural movements or trends in industries other than yours are often the source of the most creative and outside-the-box insights for your organization.

Keynotes about the Future of Intelligent Systems (2 hours)

Two visionaries stepped on the SXSW stage, and fortunately for us, their full interviews were recorded!

Ray Kurzweil — famed inventor, thinker, and futurist, who has a remarkable track record of accurate predictions, sits down with Jessica Coen for an hour-long discussion that covers a wide range of topics related to the future of intelligent systems. (1 hour)

Elon Musk — Musk made a surprise appearance at SXSW this year and avid fans lined up for hours to get a ticket to see this conversation with Westworld creator Jonathan Nolan. Musk covers a wide range of topics in this conversation, including the future of space travel, Mars colonization, the likely impacts of AI, and more. (1 hour)


Everyone is Talking about Trends (2.5 hours)

Many SXSW attendees are there to observe emerging trends in technology, culture, and society. It’s no wonder that all of the conference sessions related to trends filled up very quickly. Below are reports from four organizations that took the stage to discuss what they see as key trends for 2018. If you only have time for one report, we recommend digging in to Amy Webb’s report from the Future Today Institute.

Future Institute Today (Amy Webb) (1 hour)

The Anatomy of a Trend (30 minutes)

FJORD Trends 2018 (30 minutes)

7 Non-Obvious Trends (30 minutes)


Take a “Virtual Walk” around other SXSW Exhibits (1 hour)

From the trade show floor to company-specific pavilions, the latest technologies, startups, and future disruptors are always on display in downtown Austin during SXSW. Below are a few links that give you just a glimpse of the many sights and sounds portending future trends. Take an hour or so and explore a handful of the links below to see some of the things we saw in our walk around town.

Trade Show recap

Sony WOW Studio

Interactive Innovation Awards

Bose AR Sound Glasses

Samsung C-Lab

Unanimous AI

MIT Self-Assembly Lab

SXSW Trends recap


Encounters with the Unexpected (2+ hours)

One of the best parts of attending SXSW is a chance to encounter the unexpected. Unexpected people met over tacos between sessions. Delightful glimpses of the future were experienced as robots poured your morning latte. Unexpected insights were generated when the conference session you wanted was full and you decided to step into the session next door. Below are a few links that you might not choose to watch on a normal day at the office, but I encourage you to check out at least one. Use this report as a chance to mix up your newsfeed with something that may be delightfully unexpected, or divisively irritating.

Ezra Klein — our top recommendation if you only have time for one of these. Klein’s observations about trends in media and politics and their second and third order consequences will undoubtedly make you think.

Westworld Recreation — we didn’t get to go to this, but we wish we had!

3D Printed House — startup ICON printed a single story 650 ft home in a single day during SXSW in downtown Austin for $4k.

Esther Perel — Perel gave the opening keynote to kick off SXSW interactive. Her observations about relationships in the modern era are relevant no matter what stage of life (and love) you find yourself in.

Ta-Nehisi Coates — an observer and commentator on modern culture, politics, and social issues. Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg discuss art and culture and its impact on society.