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Brief Published: 17 Mar 2015

SXSW 2015: Man vs Machine

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Meerkat app at SXSW 2015

It seems more packed than ever at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas this year. There are 550 companies here – up 25% from 2014 – but for some attendees, it's the rise of the robots that's the most worrying development. A group protesting against artificial intelligence took to the streets over the weekend, carrying signs declaring: "Humans are the future".

Their concerns were deeply felt, but British scientist Stephen Wolfram told American newspaper USA Today that he was "amazed" by the protest. "AI [artificial intelligence] has changed life in ways as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution."

Wolfram probably didn't have robotic cocktails in mind, but they're available here of course. A powerful alcoholic blue drink "devised" by IBM's AI machine Watson was being served at one of SXSW's many parties on Sunday night (March 15).

Elsewhere, the march of the machines seemed unstoppable. British automotive supplier Delphi announced it will attempt the first ever cross-country automated drive in the US on March 22, with a self-driving Audi SQ5. Meanwhile, the first ever "Robot Petting Zoo" was held at the Marriott hotel, where attendees could get up close and personal with such creations as the Ozobot and BlabDroid.

Robotic and AI technologies were also at the heart of Stylus' own session, A Day in the Life of a Future Fashion Fan, which drew an enthusiastic crowd on Sunday, including Lucy Beard, chief executive of custom shoe start-up, Feetz. Still in beta, Feetz looks set to be an interesting new entrant into the personalised clothing market.

As we predicted in our SXSW Preview, live-streaming app Meerkat has been the talk of the town, with founder Ben Rubin engaged in non-stop interviews as soon as he touched down at Austin airport. SXSW is the perfect forum for an app, where – as Rubin told USA Today – "You basically have a tool to take the audience with you". For now, to the relief of the anti-AI brigade, that audience is at least 99% human.

We'll be publishing full reports from SXSW in the coming weeks – stay tuned!

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