South by Southwest takes on technology for humanity

An event during this year's South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Photo by: Daniel X. O'Neil / CC BY

AUSTIN, Texas — When Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, took the stage last week at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, he said what he often does: “We live in the most extraordinary time in human history.”

Of course, there is a stark contrast between his narrative of abundance, and the very real scarcity that exists in much of the world. But Diamandis believes that as computers become faster and cheaper, they will drive emerging technologies, and the convergence of those technologies will soon have an impact across all industries and markets, including in the developing world.

The latest XPRIZE announced by his foundation takes on the challenge of “avatars” — remotely controlled robots that can transport the senses of their operators to distant places. When Devex asked what Diamandis saw as the role of aid organizations in the $10 million prize, he said they should be the first users of the technology that emerges from it.

“Before the prize is won, in the years leading up to it, we should have deals with all the humanitarian organizations and all the disaster relief organizations that they’re going to use the avatars coming out of this in the field to demonstrate how it can be used to change what is possible,” he replied. 

There is an unfolding conversation about how to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of emerging technologies. As a result, the annual South by Southwest festival has increasingly become a destination not only for music, film, and tech enthusiasts, but also for a discussion on the role of technology for humanity. Global development professionals who see the potential for technology to transform their work attend sessions that directly relate to it; learn about new trends that could someday have an impact on what they do; and make connections with professionals from other industries who could become unlikely allies.

Investing in entrepreneurs

At this year’s festival, three entrepreneurs took the stage at Africa House, a new effort to highlight and celebrate technology, entrepreneurship, and design from across the continent.

Kemo Toure from Senegal talked about his work leveraging machine learning to help users find jobs. Brenda Katwesigye from Uganda talked about her work to provide affordable eyeglasses handcrafted from recycled plastic. And Wesley Owiti from Kenya talked about his work providing sewing machines to women who are trained to run fashion businesses.

Entrepreneurs joked that they traveled all the way from Africa to meet people from Africa, pointing out that the networking opportunities at Africa House in Austin offered connections to members of the African diaspora and fellow entrepreneurs from the continent they might not otherwise have had.

Entrepreneurs from all over the world see SXSW as an opportunity to showcase not only their work, but also the markets they work in as places to invest. As ever, ways of securing funding was a key conversation, and one of the topics that came up in sessions on global entrepreneurship was the importance of early stage finance — and what form it should take.

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“There is a gap between the significant sums of money that are available from international development organizations that are not getting into the hands of entrepreneurs,” said Kamran Elahian, founder and chairman of Global Innovation Catalyst, who spoke on a session called “Future of Education’s Relationships with Startups.” “In many parts of the world, what entrepreneurs need is not millions of dollars but $5,000 or $10,000 or $20,000 to get started.”

He told Devex about his work advising the World Bank on better ways to support entrepreneurs in countries including Jordan and Morocco. Originally from Iran, he founded 10 companies, including three failures and several multibillion dollar “unicorns.” He explained how entrepreneurs in emerging markets need equity investment, not loans, because the risk capital model assumes a high number of startups are likely to fail, but there is a lack of access to the capital they need.

Most of the sessions at Africa House focused on the benefits of technological transformation. Elsewhere on the SXSW agenda, there were concerns about what the rise of automation could mean for the future of work. But at Africa House many attendees were optimistic that entrepreneurs could create local solutions to such global challenges.

“Every time we look at something that’s going to be time saving and labor reducing we want to think about what can be done with the time saved,” said C.D. Glin, president and chief executive officer of the United States African Development Foundation, a partner and sponsor of Africa House. “Right now, Africans produce things they don’t consume and consume things they don’t produce. There are cocoa farmers who have never tasted chocolate, and while technology might take people out of the cocoa farming industry, they could be in the cocoa value chain. So when it comes to the impact of technology on Africa there will be net losses but there could also be net gains.”

He moderated the session with the three African entrepreneurs, and when a member of the audience asked Glin how he defends the work of the African Development Foundation within the new government administration — which takes an America First stance — Glin said it is all about demonstrating the return on investment.

“When you’re investing in African entrepreneurs, whether in the creative sector or fashion or technology for development, you want to see them developing business models that are self-sustaining, and that demonstrates tax dollars well spent,” he said.

When man and machine come together

Artificial intelligence — one of the hottest issues in the tech sector and beyond — divides opinion, both inside and outside the development community. Depending on who you ask, AI will either save the world, or pose the greatest threat humanity has ever seen.

“We have to figure out some way to ensure that the advent of digital superintelligence is one which is symbiotic with humanity,” said Elon Musk, best known as the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. “I think that’s the single biggest existential crisis which we face and the most pressing one.”

International development organizations are working on ways to leverage the potential of technology for good which were highlighted at the festival.

Uyi Stewart, director of strategy for data and analytics at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has devoted his career to developing and deploying AI solutions to data-related problems in global health and international development.

But at a session called “The end of global hunger? AI will make it work,” he talked about the challenges on the ground in delivering on the promise of AI.

For example, AI can help in food production, with an intelligent agent processing the huge database of knowledge available to farmers; food distribution, where algorithms can automate the processing of satellite and drone imagery to get aid where it is needed most; and consumption, with devices that can help people make better choices about the nutrients they need.

But Stewart said he has become more realistic about what is doable with AI and called on the audience to turn down the hype.

“I believe in the promise and potential of AI. But as impatient optimists we need to start to pay attention to the realism on the ground, which is that we need to start to address issues of scalability and sustainability of these solutions,” he said.

The panel was convened by the World Food Programme, and Robert Opp, director of its Innovation and Change Management Division, pointed to chatbots as among the solutions WFP is working on to leverage AI to accelerate its work.

But he posed the question: “We mention chatbots. That’s great. But how many smartphones do we have?” In other words, how many beneficiaries of development programs have access to the technology that makes those chatbots a useful tool?

He pointed to the need to focus on the short-term reality as well as the long-term future of technology for development: Unless developers and designers focus on simple phones as well as smartphones, they will fail to reach poor and marginalized communities, leaving them even further behind.

Pranav Khaitan, an engineering lead at Google AI, has been talking with WFP about ways they can leverage artificial intelligence for their mission. At SXSW, he said it is critical to build partnerships across disciplines; to take on concrete and small problems, rather than problems that are either too specific or too broad; and to gather the right data for the problem you are trying to solve, and the population you are trying to serve.

“For AI to be successful, it has to be an enterprise between man and machine. The counter proposal is that it’s a symbiosis, it’s a collaboration between man and machine. There are problems that machines are great at but there’re things that humans are better at,” Stewart said.

Future focused collaboration

While much of the focus in Austin last week was on how technology will transform every industry, several speakers emphasized the importance of leveraging existing tools, including the power of partnerships.

Billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, talked about some of her priorities, including women and minorities in tech. “How do we take the tools we have and create leverage?” she said. “What I’m doing is not just using my voice; I’m moving my money.”

Gates also talked about the Sustainable Development Goals, which the Gates Foundation is not only actively working towards, but also tracking progress on through its annual Goalkeepers event.

In past years, the United Nations Foundation took over a separate space at SXSW called the Social Good Hub. This year, while there was a social impact track on the agenda, the SXSW team seemed to try and build more bridges between the tech and social good crowds. For example, while a session on bringing “design thinking” to the SDGs was pitched for the social impact category, it was put on the “Startup & Tech Sectors” track.

At many of the side events and pop-up spaces across Austin — Africa House being one example — there was an emphasis on cross-sector partnerships. For example, the Caterpillar Foundation launched its “Value of Water” campaign, which asks people to commit to what they will do for water, at the Waller Creek Boathouse, where a key takeaway from a panel discussion was that the clean water challenge is not in fact a technology challenge. What remains a challenge is the financing, said Gary White, CEO of Water.org, who said he said he does not think there is any SDG more expensive to solve than water and sanitation, and talked about the role of the private and public sectors in clean water.

South by Southwest offers a unique forum for partnerships at the intersection of technology and social good, which is why groups such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers try to organize sessions that might appeal to both sides.

“We talk a lot about ‘getting the unconnected connected,’ but we have to be careful when we do that, because we have to think about the environment we’re putting them into, the privacy and identity and security issues,” Karen McCabe, senior director for technology policy and international affairs at IEEE, which organizes a Tech for Humanity series at SXSW.

That is why it is so critical that global development professionals are involved in technology development, not just as customers but also as creators, McCabe said, noting that she hopes to see their engagement as partners as well as users in the XPRIZE avatar challenge.

About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.