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IPA's Gwilliam on why SXSW is assimilating society, cyborg monkeys and all

The growing beast that is SXSW is becoming increasing relevant to business, culture and society, says Nigel Gwilliam, as it forecasts the end of privacy as we know it, the next 50 billion networked devices and robotic arms controlled by cyborg monkeys.

IPA's Gwilliam is having a bad hair day

IPA's Gwilliam is having a bad hair day

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This was only my second visit to SXSW but you can feel it changing. As Dennis Crowley pointed out, it isn't getting better or worse, just different - a little ironic given the similarities between his sessions this year and last.

Some media reports made a strong case for Amex being the real winner this year, with a digitally ubiquitous new product launch, piloted last year and promoted by Jay-Z the biggest talent on show.

It was also the year Al Gore was interviewed on stage by Justin Timberlake, I mean Sean Parker, and a Warton Business Professor practically blasphemed by suggesting Lego was nearly killed by too much innovation.

On the surface these are not the hallmarks of the pre-eminent emerging technologies festival but it's arguably a sign of its ever growing relevance to business, culture and society that all of the above took place alongside sessions on the end of privacy as we know it, the next 50 billion networked devices and robotic arms controlled by cyborg monkeys.

These three examples may seem a little a little far fetched, not to say random but they are all aspects of one of the key take outs from SXSW. This is that digital technology will not operate in some distinct screen-trapped ghetto but will increasingly be blended into the fabric of reality - or our perception of it at the very least.

In fact that's a nice metaphor for what's happening to SXSW: society isn't assimilating it, it's assimilating society.

So how will tech be blended into the fabric of reality?

This year's winner of buzzword bingo was 'ambient'. Basically the software and services you carry around with you will be always on - always recording & transmitting data about you, and always receiving data for you.

Early forms of it are a pre-requisite for the latest social apps like Highlight and Geoloqi. And legendary visionary Ray Kurzweil envisages a near future in which intelligent agents (smart search engines) will quietly listen into what you're talking about and suggest useful references without you having to ask for them.

Now clearly these levels of surveillance raise obvious questions over data protection and privacy but the answer we hear is that in the near future privacy just won't really exist. Of far greater current concern is the drain on your phone's battery of always-on services. This is SXSW after all.

It won’t be just your phone you have to worry about soon - on the horizon are the next 50 billion devices to be networked - light bulbs, cars, TVs, digital cameras, refrigerators, stereos, cranes, bed. Being networked will be like air and water – noticeable only by its absence.

What about the interface between man and machine? Early versions of natural language interfaces in the form of Siri already exist, which whilst limited now are expected to pass the Turing Test by 2029. Head up displays projected onto glasses then contact lenses, providing information in geographical context where necessary, are on there way.

If it’s not voice or gesture that will form the basis of interaction with this, perhaps it will be a direct neural interface – a direct communication pathway between the brain and external devices.This is where the cyborg monkeys come in. And let’s just hope they don’t go all Caesar (Planet of the Apes) on our asses.

Nigel Gwilliam is head of digital at the UK's Institute of Practioners in Advertising (IPA). Follow Gwilliam on Twitter: @NigelG

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