From the gig economy to product personalization and the ethics around artificial intelligence, this year’s SXSW was focused on innovation and responsibility

On-demand business and the on-demand economy were big topics at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) music, film and technology festival; as was the idea that large, established corporations should invest in their own form of gig economy in order to remain agile and disruptive.

For many, talk of the gig economy conjures up pictures of couriers, handymen and food delivery, but, according to Gene Zaino, president and CEO of MBO Partners, any role can and should be seen as on-demand, especially when it doesn’t align with a company’s core business.

Corporations embracing the gig economy

“Companies are finding that they need to be very agile. They need to move quickly, they need to look over their shoulder to new business models,” Zaino said. “They need to have a very flexible workforce because it’s difficult to have full-time people that you can move that quickly with.”

This is why the leading organizations are building their own communities of independent talent to meet specific project goals when they arise. “It’s typical sharing economy,” Zaino explained  “Full-time work is never going to go away but I think there are more and more large companies looking to get an outer ring of their own community of independent professionals before they go out to the consulting and vendor community.”

Uber knows what you want to eat

And as well as how we work, the on-demand economy is changing how we consume in the most literal sense. According to Patrik Hellstrand, CEO of vegan restaurant by CHLOE and an Uber Eats partner, the act of dining, like shopping, is becoming a point and click experience. As a result, the kitchen is becoming a fulfillment center. “We’re living in an on-demand economy today,” he said.

But this dining room disruption also means that restaurateurs and their delivery partners have never had access to so much actionable data about consumer tastes and trends. This, according to Nikki Neuburger, global head of marketing at Uber Eats, enables her company to accurately predict what someone wants to eat and suggest it.

“We want to get to a scenario where we can offer guests what they like,” she said. At the same time, the question becomes, “People want to feel some control, so how do you walk that line?”

The consumer hasn’t changed – technology has

Walking the line with data was a recurrent theme at this year’s event, as was the impact of companies like Uber on how established brands contemplate their existing approach to business.

During the New Consumer-Centric Approach to Insights panel Tim Warner, PepsiCo’s VP of insights and analytics in Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and global digitization, and Michelle Gansle, director of global gum and mints insights at Mars Wrigley, discussed how their companies are facing up to this challenge.

“[Consumers] are looking for brands that are super authentic, consistent from inside out and have a meaningful, profound role in their lives,” said Warner. “Otherwise there’s another brand out there.”

According to Gansle, this consumer behavior isn’t new, what has changed is technology. That has enabled people to exert an enormous influence and force brands to change their strategy. “Our ability to react quickly is not great, and that’s not going away,” she said. “How do we work differently to meet expectations?”

The answer is to democratize data. All companies big and small can now leverage data insights meaning that global corporations no longer have an advantage. This is why at Mars it is pulling down silos and giving employees access to this information to create their own insights and build products and campaigns. “Rather than be protective, give everyone in the organization all the data,” said Gansle. “It’s all content without context — which is what we provide. Connecting the dots is the power.”

Taking this approach to its logical conclusion, the two companies are also looking to external partners, even organizations that would have been considered competitors, to gain the greatest possible insights from the data they collect in order to deliver for the customer on the customer’s terms.

The age of personalization

As the depth of these insights increases, so will the opportunities to truly personalize products and services. According to Poppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories, as the Internet of Things (IoT) develops so will what she called empathetic design. Depth-sensing cameras, voice assistants and other connected devices will be able to identify how an individual is feeling and by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) deliver something that fits perfectly. Whether it’s something as simple as a song to lift that person’s mood or something as complex as diagnosing an illness and prescribing a course of medication or other treatment.

French cosmetics giant L’Oréal is already one step ahead of the curve in this respect. At SXSW it demoed a new service that lets consumers submit a cheek swab for analysis. The result is a truly personalized skin treatment regimen that factors in if that person has underlying skin irritations or other bacterial imbalances.

People often audition product after product to determine what works for their unique skin,” said Guive Balooch, VP of L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator. “Our goal is to advance scientific research and leverage new technologies to change this relationship by allowing deeper levels of personalization.”

Everyone should be responsible for the use of AI

But of course no discussion around data or personalization would be complete without a debate on the technologies that are facilitating this change. During the Ethics and Responsibility in the AI and IoT Age panel hosted by digital security company Avast, former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov was very clear. If the robots rise up and if AI goes astray, it won’t be the technology’s fault. “Humans still have a monopoly on evil,” he said. “Public fantasies [about AI] are being pushed by the media. AI will always need human guidance.”

Therefore the question we should be asking is about how it’s being applied. “[There is] a danger of people using robots to cause damage to humanity;” said fellow panelist Dr. Peter Stone, Professor of computer science at the University of Texas. “If you tell an artificial intelligence to optimize something that is wrong, they will do it. They don’t care about things unless we program them to care about things.”

This is why, according to Margrethe Vestager the European Commissioner for Competition, everyone needs to be involved in the debate. “It is better to stay true to the value of diversity and there’s a lot of value to that. Because obviously when you’re all ages, genders, backgrounds, decisions are just better,” she explained. “We can only trust technology if we find that the dark side of technology is in check. And let’s make sure that it is for our societies to set the direction so that we know that we can trust what is going on.”


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