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Can we hardwire trust into our financial systems? SxSW Tech Briefing

This year there were no big headline tech launches to speak of which is unusual for an event which in years gone by saw the launch of Twitter and Foursquare, to take but two.

But this year, the tone and content was quite different. The changing political landscape loomed large, chiefly with the ‘tech under Trump’ work stream but also with keynote speeches from Joe Biden and Corey Booker.

For 2017, the recurring theme was on a pervasive lack of trust and transparency between individuals and organisations, as well as between society and its governments.

Various barometers of sentiment reveal that we are at a historical low for trust in institutions such as banks and the media.

Four panels and presentations focused on the technology variously known as Blockchain or Distributed Ledger and how it can be applied to hardwire and build trust into our systems and interactions.

Discussions ranged from how this tech enables individual contribution, makes it easy to collaborate, decentralises power and creates hope for increasing equality.

There were hands-on workshops and introductions to some of the protocols, coding and design challenges in creating distributed data structures.

As a recap on ‘Blockchain’, it is effectively a record of assets, or any other kind of content, that is shared, replicated and encrypted so it becomes a verified and immutable source of truth. The blocks can’t be modified, but can be viewed, meaning a huge benefit lies in the added trust and transparency that provides.

Dr Tomicah Tillemann, of New America’s Bretton Woods II program is working with his team to apply the principles of blockchain to the US land registry system.

Speaking at SxSW he commented: “Institutions right now provide the facts at the foundation of our reality. I know there’s a land registry somewhere that says I own my house. I swipe my card because I know the bank will transfer the right money for me. As soon as people lose confidence, those systems start to break down really quickly.

“The exciting thing about blockchain is that it has the potential to create a layer of authentication and validation that can’t be tampered with. It’s a layer of reality locked in mathematically, and it’s locked in permanently, which is something we’ve never had before.”

IBM was also in attendance, focusing on the wider potential application of blockchain, announcing a blockchain solution with shipping container giant Maersk to track shipping containers across the world

With over 90% of goods in global trade carried by the ocean shipping industry each year, there are clear benefits to enhancing transparency and sharing information.

From the exchange of money between two parties, to documenting how goods move through a supply chain, and the making of contractual agreements, there are significant savings to be had in terms of cost and time as well as the potential to reduce risk and increase trust.

We Explore or We Expire: SxSW Tech Briefing

“We explore, or we expire,” said astronaut Buzz Aldrin, of the Apollo 11 mission and one of the first two humans to land on the moon.

This simple sentence won over SXSW this year, the event in Austin, Texas which brings together some of the brightest minds in technology and innovation to collaborate.

In his keynote speech, Aldrin was talking about the push to Mars, but his speech and sentiment went wider – exploring how people and organisations are thinking and learning new ways to communicate, adapt, survive and flourish.

Virtual reality (VR) was everywhere, but there is still real debate about its real world application. In our view, VR is still looking like fun toys to promote films and event experiences. Smells a little like 3D TVs to us, and we know how that fad ended.

Does anyone really want to wear those headsets?

AI, however, is another matter. This was hot for the second year running and is being positioned as the next big disruptor.

Harley Davidson, for example, is using an AI tool to match audiences to its current database – finding customers who might be interested in purchasing a motorbike through machine learning. It attributes 40% of its sales in New York to this tool.

Disney’s R&D studio is using AI as a tool for storytelling across multiple digital platforms.

One speaker estimated that a 30-year grace period before AI completely takes over the workplace, calling for a push to design AI to augment rather than replace people.

This requires a clear distinction between AI (artificial intelligence) and IA, or intelligent augmentation.

AI is about reproducing human cognition and functioning autonomously, while IA is about supplementing and supporting it, leaving the intentionality of human operators at the heart of the process.

For brands, this is going to continue to be about making sense of complex data through machine learning, enhance and augment, rather than merely removing human roles.

Back to Mr Aldrin’s alma mater, NASA, which is working with Google to explore the application of quantum computing to artificial intelligence.

The space agency’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (QuAIL) is using quantum computers to perform calculations that are difficult or impossible using conventional supercomputers, effectively becoming a quasi-AI.

The team aims to demonstrate that quantum computing and quantum algorithms may someday dramatically improve the agency’s ability to solve difficult problems for space missions but also back on earth.