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Why there was no breakout technology at SXSW this year

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Getting ahead of ourselves in Austin

Of the hundreds of panels at this year’s South By Southwest Interactive Festival, one stood out for sheer ambition. On Monday morning, a Canadian company named Synbiota would teach us how to make custom micro-organisms using its proprietary DNA prototyping tool. The process would be as easy as stacking LEGO blocks, the company promised. "By the end of the workshop you will have engineered and grown your own custom micro-organism that does useful work, or makes valuable biological products like medicine, materials, food, and fuel," Synbiota said. At a festival where ambition rarely stretches beyond eating tacos for both breakfast and dinner, Synbiota’s panel promised an actual glimpse into the future.

Unfortunately, Synbiota’s founders skipped the panel. One never arrived in Austin at all. Ten minutes after the panel was due to start, a visibly angry festival volunteer took to the podium to announce that the panelists had never picked up their badges. And they weren’t answering their phones, either. ("Last-minute emergency," they later told me, via email.) Just like that, a promised glimpse at the wonders to come receded a little further into the future.

Significant breakthroughs remain years or even decades away

Maybe next year, I thought as I shuffled out of the convention center that morning. And if SXSW had a theme this year, that might have been it. At talks on artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and online harassment, panelists seemed resigned to the idea that significant breakthroughs remained years or even decades away. And so a festival famed for its unique ability to push new technology into the mainstream in 2016 found itself empty-handed.

And that’s a shame, because after a miserable 2014, the festival that brought Twitter and Foursquare to prominence felt newly vital last year. It was still an orgy of brands and digital marketers, but it also brought the emergence of live-streaming video, Ex Machina and a secret meeting between Edward Snowden and tech executives. This year kicked off with a news-making talk by President Barack Obama, and the majority of planned sessions were admirably topical. But most of the discussions seemed to die inside the Austin Convention Center, and there’s a consistent reason why: for the most exciting topics in tech, the future seems to be running a little behind schedule.

On Sunday I attended a fireside chat with Rodney Brooks, chairman of Rethink Robotics and a former director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. "We’re a lot further off from where people think we are," said Brooks, who among other things co-founded iRobot, inventors of the Roomba. "The media is saying we’re gonna have this and this. No, we’re not! It’s really hard!" Recent successes in machine learning, notably Google’s AlphaGo AI defeating world-class Go player Lee Se-Dol four out of five times in a recent series, have raised expectations significantly. But beating Go is ultimately an applied math problem, Brooks said. To achieve the sort of free-thinking, problem-solving artificial intelligence of science fiction will require many more breakthroughs, he said, likely over several decades.

"This technology is going to come out incrementally."

Talks about autonomous driving at SXSW told much the same story. "If you read the papers, you’re going to see that it’s maybe three years, maybe 30 years," Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving car project, said in a talk attended by my colleague Nick Statt. (Another theme at SXSW this year: blaming the media!) "I think it’s a bit of both. This technology is almost certainly going to come out incrementally." As Statt noted, Urmson seemed to be playing down expectations; last year he said he hoped his 11-year-old son would never have to get a driver’s license.

The third major subject of SXSW this year was online harassment, an issue where technical solutions are much more easily implemented. SXSW hosted a day-long Online Harassment Summit devoted to discussing the effects of online abuse on its victims and some possible ways to fix it. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) announced a cybercrime enforcement bill at the event that, if signed into law, would fund training for police to help them better respond to online threats and harassment.

But support for the summit was scarce: most panels were more than half-empty, and were not streamed online. While big platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have expressed sympathy for victims of abuse, they have often been slow to develop tools to protect them. And aside from one Facebook executive, SXSW didn’t draw any big-company tech executives to talk about the issue.

If SXSW felt a little far out in 2016, it’s not necessarily the festival’s fault. Organizers have to make long bets on the future — they plan the schedule nearly a year ahead of time. This can have all sorts of unfortunate side effects — at one panel I attended, the intended host was revealed to be out on paternity leave. At another, a panel starring a researcher from Google’s secretive X division revealed that she had recently left the company (and didn’t have much to say about Google, either).

Last year's show felt more vital

But the enduring promise of SXSW since Twitter broke out in 2007 is that something will happen there — some emergent behavior possible only in such a tight concentration of nerds. And last year it did. Meerkat may be toast, but the SXSW attendees who broadcast themselves all over Austin last year did kick off a significant trend in tech platforms adding live video. Facebook now sees it as a core component of its offering; Mark Zuckerberg is said to be "obsessed" with it. Twitter successfully launched Periscope and added one of its founders, Kayvon Beykpour, to its executive team. And attendees of SXSW last year helped to spark it.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the mature technologies felt boring and the most promising ones weren’t yet ready to ship. SXSW ran head-first into the same problem — and as a result, it often felt like CES come to Texas. We sat on our hands while panelists worked mostly to tamp down our expectations. (Comma.ai’s George Hotz was a notable, and possibly crazy, exception.)

The future will still get here eventually. But for next year SXSW might want to highlight some technologies that are a little closer to arriving. (Virtual reality headsets will be widely available by then, and ought to provide plenty of material for the thinkfluencer crowd.) In the meantime there’s always the music, the movies, and our beloved brands. Until next year, Austin. So long and thanks for all the tacos.