SXSW: Obama touts tech, others examine pitfalls

Obama was the first sitting president ever to address the conference

President Obama at SXSW

President Barack Obama delivered the keynote address on Friday at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas. He said that privacy must sometimes be sacrificed to an extent for the public good, such as security searches at airports, but on the other hand he did not like the idea of the government having "willy-nilly" access to people's smartphones.

Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

AUSTIN, Texas -- Government, the private sector and non-profits should work together to apply technology to address the nation's problems and to enhance civic engagement, said President Barack Obama, delivering the keynote Friday at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive technology conference here.

The first sitting president ever to address the conference, he said if we pull together, "There's no problem we face in this country that's not solvable."

His address was in the form of an interview with Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, who brought up the recent controversy between Apple Inc. and the FBI over smartphone encryption. President Obama noted that privacy must sometimes be sacrificed to an extent for the public good, such as security searches at airports, but on the other hand he did not like the idea of the government having "willy-nilly" access to people's smartphones.

But the idea of problems becoming increasing soluble -- or not -- was a constant theme in other sessions of the conference, largely devoted to emerging technologies.

Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, for instance, noted that Moore's Law, predicting a thousand-fold increase in computing power every decade, merely represents the "semiconductor epoch" of a trend that goes back to 1900, with the power of calculating devices increasing geometrically while their prices decrease geometrically.

"Wars and depressions have had no impact on the graph -- why should it change in the future? This is the most important thing ever graphed; nothing is more important for humanity's future," he said in a session titled "Accelerating Change and the Future of Technology."

"Already we are building artifacts that exceed human understanding," he said, referring to AI and deep learning. "Programming will become more like parenting than engineering. Moore's Law will revolutionize every industry over time," added Jurvetson, whose ventures have included SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Hotmail.

Meanwhile, AI that can, for instance, recognize pictures of cats is a marvelous thing. But for real-world jobs AI needs to be able to explain its decisions before humans can be expected to trust them, cautioned panelists in a conference titled "Big Data and AI: Sci-Fi vs. Everyday Applications."

"It is dangerous to think that machines will understand something if they are just given enough data," said Doug Lenat, head of AI firm Cycorp.

"A reliance on numbers and statistics will kill us," agreed Kris Hammond, chief scientist at Narrative Science. "What is being done now is magnificent, but it is not trustworthy. IBM's Watson (AI system) can tell you that it is 85% certain that you have thyroid cancer, but it can't tell you why."

AI that presents questionable ads to search engine users is bad enough, "But when you are dealing with people's lives you need results that are justifiable and auditable," said Rayid Ghani, from the University of Chicago.

As for the robots and artificial intelligence, futurist Jerry Kaplan assured attendees at another SXSW session that there is no reason to fear them -- physically. Economically, however, they may cause some disruption, he cautioned.

"That they can perform tasks that humans solve using intelligence does not mean they are intelligent," he told the session, titled "Robot Armageddon: AI, Jobs, and Inequality." "That just shows that the tasks were subject to solution by other means."

Kaplan reviewed the hand-wringing that resulted when a computer beat a chess champion in 1997, when a car drove itself in 2004 and when an AI system won the TV quiz show Jeopardy! In 2011. The systems were subject of what he called "gratuitous anthropomorphisms."

"Robots have no intent or desires... when you tell a car to take you to the office and it decides to go to the beach, then it will be truly autonomous," he said.

As for their impact on employment, he noted that robots automate tasks, not perform jobs. But when enough tasks are automated fewer people may be needed for a job.

He noted that, in 1790, 90% of jobs in the U.S. were in agriculture, while today less than two percent are -- yet most people are employed. "The pattern of new jobs taking up the slack will probably continue... but the cycle of job destruction and creation will speed up, and so job training also needs to speed up."

Those who can invest in new technology will experience most of the benefits, widening inequality if there is no public policy to counter the trend, Kaplan said. "But with the economy doubling every 40 years, we can encourage the more equal distribution of wealth without stealing from the rich to give to the poor," he said.

Ironically, a couple of hours before President Obama called for a tech partnership with the federal government, two big-city mayors cited successful uses of data at the municipal level, where the public has come to expect immediate results -- and said the federal government was typically too tied up in ideology to do the same thing.

Sly James, the mayor of Kansas City, told the "Betting Living through Data and Evidence" session about people in his city using data to map blighted areas and to address abandoned buildings. And while his city had long conducted satisfaction surveys, they found ways of turning the data into a feedback loop to enhance the performance of various projects.

"None of this matters as much as a collaborative relationship with your city staff," he added. "I had to show them that data would help them do their jobs. They could see the increased satisfaction, and now we have a tight-knit team that loves data -- wallows in it," James said.

Marilyn Strickland, mayor of Tacoma, told the same session that municipal employees must be assured that they are allowed to fail, even with public money. "When they succeed, success can be so amazing," she said. She told of using data maps to see if county municipalities were sharing the burden of homeless welfare projects.

"Cities have not been wild about sharing data for a long time since the story was not always a good one. But people respect you if you own it rather than hide the bad news," Strickland said. "If we want government that people trust, you have to put the data out there even if we don't like it. The question is, will we be barriers to progress or innovators in a dynamic world?" she asked.

The SXSW Interactive conference, part of the larger annual SXSW event, continues through March 15, with hundreds of sessions, exhibitions and showcases covering technology. The rest of SXSW covers music and cinema and continues through March 20. SXSW also includes a trade show and a job fair.

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