Petting Robots and Connecting Citizens at SXSW

Dateline: Austin, Texas - The annual shindig that is South By Southwest is never unenjoyable for a media-hound. How could it be -- with its abundant, tripartite combination of a Film division, an entire Internet universe (or more officially the 'Interactive' division) and the all-pervasive backdrop of a Music festival?

It's just that there is so much to enjoy, and so much variety within that extravagant multiplicity.

It's consequently become a perpetual, banal complaint that the hard challenge for every attendee at SXSW (to use the trademarked acronym, pronounced, if incompletely, as "South By") is just how to decide what event or session to attend at any given point in the day-by-day calendar.

So ... despite all the tips issuing from apps, electronic alerts, and good old-fashioned paper flyers constantly thrust into my hand on Austin's streets, this year I opted for happenstance as my only guide.

It hasn't led me wrong.

I ended up, for instance, taking in a somewhat partial (inevitably) but highly informative briefing on artificial intelligence devices (okay - robots) at a coyly-conceived Petting Zoo for Robots. On entering, past the hardly-needed "Please Do Not Feed The Animals" signboatd, visitors could get up-close-and-personal with various robots designed for highly useful tasks which often are beyond human power (like for instance delivering food and water to isolated hurricane-battered communities). The self-consciously cosy setting of the Zoo is, I suppose, one way to counter fears about AI that have been engendered by Bill Gates, among other science and technology heavyweights, with his now-infamous "I am in the camp that is concerned" warning while on Reddit.

And on the same day I was even helped, by an enthusiastic panel session, to get my brain around how a metropolis of 8 million-plus souls (my own home-town of New York in fact) is now being digitally reconfigured as a fully "Responsive City" to the needs of its individual residents - one small neighborhood by one small neighborhood.

The ever-alert trend-watchers of Wunderman Reports LINK (a lively web platform mounted by one of the gargantuan ad agency Young & Rubicam's branded shops) interviewed me on the doorstep of SXSW's main venue - where else, in these days of instantaneous comment? - about my take on these developments. Here's their video:

For the more detail-oriented, that big New York innovation is coming via the city's newly-agreed LinkNYC program, effectively replacing the 7,500 well-nigh obsolete pay-phones that still dot our streets. What will take their place is the Qualcomm telecomms company's new LTE Direct wireless network, which involves many sleek new interactive kiosks (to be called, uninventively, LINKs) - but which also more radically connects individual cellphone users to each other on a peer-to-peer basis, obviating the need for cell-towers or beacons.

The basic framework for all this is proximity - a favored buzzword at this year's SXSW - with connections favoring an area within a radius of 500 yards, pretty much the size of what many New Yorkers will regard as their own local 'hood. It will be brought to users "free" - that hoary old cloak for "paid for by advertising".

Oh, and the Zoo? Details of the many self-directing machines hoping to charm us with some cuteness maybe, but also much powerful utility, can be seen here.

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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his regular online column, The Media Beat at its new site. The Media Beat Podcasts are always available on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.