SXSW 2016: Back to the human

Laura Jordan Bambach picks the best talks on this year's big theme: where human and tech intersect.

‘1+2 = blue: the science of color in film’ showed that colour can be used as a powerful narrative tool
‘1+2 = blue: the science of color in film’ showed that colour can be used as a powerful narrative tool

SXSW is about imagining and reimagining the future: of our industry, of course; but, most importantly, of our world. For someone like me with a passion for the new, it’s a cornucopia of new ideas and techniques. 

And it’s weird. I almost went to a workshop on embracing failure until I realised I was one of only five people and it involved rolling around on the floor with someone in a polka-dot leotard.

The event challenges why you do what you’re doing and whether you’re doing it well. You leave SXSW richer in knowledge and spirit. Opinions challenged and eyes opened.

The biggest and most challenging conversation from every angle was around where humanity and technology intersect. Every single seminar, performance or dinner-time conversation touched on it. Our understanding of the far reaches of technology and big data have at last matured enough to allow us to see the innate humanness in our actions and transactions. In effect, it has allowed us to see the "human touch" and start to understand its importance. 

What makes us human

Hiroshi Ishiguro is the world’s pre-eminent cyborg researcher. Based at Osaka University, he has had a long career exploring what constitutes a sense of humanness in a cyborg and the "uncanny valley" – that space where the man-made gets close enough to the human that it feels unsettling. Ishiguro has been testing his theories on "gemanoids" – cyborgs in his own likeness. With glee, he talked about sending his cyborg to teach his lessons. He has even had plastic surgery to look more like his cyborg. 

But Ishiguro’s other research is more interesting for us – he is subtracting human features one at a time to find the most rudimentary object that people respond to emotionally as a living being. 

How to strengthen a story

"1+2 = blue: the science of color in film" was the best talk of SXSW for me. The Mill and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology got deep into the art of colour through grading and cognitive visualisation, including a dive into Blade Runner’s groundbreaking cinematography. And the talk proved that, by understanding the unique way colour is read, its cultural signifiers and personal markers of meaning, one can use it as a powerful narrative tool. Creatives know this intuitively, of course, but I feel like I have a whole new perspective on what it means to "see" in the human versus machine debate.

In another talk about humanness, the graphic designer and artist Kelli Anderson spoke about how she leaves traces of the human touch in all her work – even though most never leaves the screen – to trigger a physical response from the audience. Tape marks and prop strings become a hidden and very human way of drawing someone into her stories. 

Robot collaboration

American Greetings had the best brand manifestation at SXSW – its space, Analog, featured talks about the importance of bringing the human touch to technology.

Sougwen Chung, an artist and researcher at MIT, collaborated on drawings with a robotic arm called DOUG. The machine allows her to let go of perfection in her art and embrace her humanness.

Chung also explored the synthetic brain. In the week that Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol 4-1 in the board game Go, she posed some interesting questions: why does Google DeepMind’s visualisation of its thought process have a penchant for dogs’ heads? What does it say about its consciousness? Does AlphaGo create new moves that humans wouldn’t consider? And are they beautiful? Another "uncanny valley" – as machine minds become almost human – but not quite. 

Computing intentions

Nature constantly responds to external and internal stimulus. So can materials and buildings come alive in
response to humans?

Behnaz Farahi is an artist applying these principles of nature to both architecture and fashion, exploring how to augment humans with synthetic systems that enhance senses and experiences.

Her piece Caress of the Gaze, a SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards finalist, is a fully 3D-printed garment that captures age, gender and gaze to move in an organic way. What if you could feel the gaze of other people on your body and understand their intentions? As the invisible becomes visible and the cape moves in response to who is looking at it, I wonder how we might use this technology to respond to our own audiences. 

In a nutshell

Our future is in understanding different and intangible human qualities and bringing them together with the best that tech has to offer. 

As 2005-2015 was the decade of mobile and social, consensus at SXSW is that we are now entering the era of hard tech. Of digital taking a step back out into the real world. We are seeing it in things such as the augmented reality/virtual reality explosion. 

The University of Tokyo’s panel believed that the future lies in things we can have real-world interactions with. What are we doing with our brands to help them step into this world?

Laura Jordan Bambach is the creative partner at Mr President