Robot dogs, tech bros and virtual Geisha girls: when SXSW came to Sydney | SXSW


The famous Austin festival picked the Harbour City for its first foray overseas, bringing an eclectic mix of AI, celebrities and cutting edge ideas

A simultaneously familiar and slightly terrifying robot dog wanders through the audience of a session at the Sydney edition of South by South West. On stage, the panellists opine about a future increasingly defined by artificial intelligence and automation.

“It’s going to get much, much more significant,” says Ed Santow, the former human rights commissioner and current director of policy and governance at the UTS Human Technology Institute. “And for many people that will be a good thing, [but] for a lot of people it’ll be really, really hard.”

AI has become ubiquitous in the past year, and at an event like SXSW it’s inescapable, but not everyone is convinced it’s a game-changer.

Charlie Brooker, the creator of the Netflix series Black Mirror who is at least partially responsible for making robot dogs so terrifying, says he found AI “boring and derivative” when he asked ChatGPT to write an episode of the hit show about technology gone wrong.

Charlie Brooker at SXSW in Sydney. Photograph: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for SXSW Sydney

“It’s just emulating something. It’s Hoovered up every description of every Black Mirror episode, presumably from Wikipedia and other things that people have written, and it’s just sort of vomiting that back at me. It’s pretending to be something it isn’t capable of being,” he tells the audience.

Outside the main convention centre in Tumbalong Park where the free events are set up, a pop-up bar claims to be designed by AI, right down to an “AI cocktail” – but it’s just a margarita. You can’t help but think, maybe Brooker is right.

Our regulatory system is ‘inadequate’

Depending on which event you attend, AI is either the latest capitalist fad, a looming horror, something we need to embrace or not even worth thinking about.

At a panel on the ethical use of AI, Kate Bower, a consumer data advocate at Choice, says because AI is invisible in everyday services such as search engines and credit services, people are at risk from AI without realising it.

“People don’t know when they’re potentially being harmed by AI,” she says. “And that could be through lack of inclusion, it could be through lack of diversity, it could be by opaque credit scores that mean that they don’t get a mortgage.”

“They might not know there’s discrimination in that algorithm, so those options for redress that we currently have in our regulatory system are inadequate.”

Justin Stevens, the director of news at the ABC, says he is excited about the prospect of AI but admits the public broadcaster has been taking a very cautious approach, making sure it isn’t used to generate original pieces of journalism.

It could be useful for investigative journalism, he says, by scraping court records and collecting data in a matter of minutes where it otherwise would have taken weeks. AI tools to identify AI deep-fakes could also be of benefit in the future.

“We don’t know and can’t see the impact it will have on our industry and sector – and it will be vast – but I’m not closed off to it being all downside,” he says.

AI deep fakes might have been useful in generating an audience for the Real Housewives of Sydney event, where only a handful of punters are braving the cold and rain to hear them speak about the new Binge reality show.

Photograph: Josh Taylor/The Guardian

Meanwhile, there is still bandwidth available for the tech fad of yesteryear: cryptocurrency.

Is it dead? Not according to Fred Schebesta, the co-founder of the comparison website Finder. In fact, it’s on its way back alongside rising inflation (but that’s not financial advice).

“We had a bad actor in crypto,” Schebesta says of FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried, currently on trial for stealing customer funds and lying to investors. “You know, in America … if you mess with capitalism, they will mess with you.”

Schebesta says he never met the accused fraudster when Finder sold an over the counter trading desk to FTX before it all came crashing down.

NFTs – the jpg-artwork trade that was all the rage last year – also have their own slot. However, the panel entitled “NFTs – sizzle or fizzle?” is more on the fizzle side with its half-capacity crowd. A handful in attendance raise their hands when asked if anyone owns an NFT – but all hands drop when asked if anyone owns one they aren’t embarrassed about.

Away from the talkfest and over at the tech expo, men are offered barber cuts at the Monster energy drink stand, while someone from Intel yells out invitations to partake in a video game event. There is a VR headset where you can interact with virtual Japanese Geisha girls – the booth babes of the 21st century.

Qantas offers a virtual reality headseat tour of its Project Sunrise plane alongside real-world models of first and business class booths. And the Australian army has an armoured vehicle on display, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

‘Not much of a summer camp vibe’

When Sydney was announced as the first SXSW location outside of Austin in nearly four decades, it felt like a big win for the city – particularly given the challenges Sydney has faced over its nightlife during the past decade.

But by its nature, SXSW is an outlier in Austin, bringing in the tech bros and people deeply involved in music, film and TV. Tech bros and a large portion of Australia’s entertainment industry are already based in Sydney so SXSW doesn’t feel much different to other tech conferences the city often hosts. At the end of the day, there’s not much of a summer camp vibe.

It could be partly the location – Darling Harbour, where most of the events are held, is not a place most Sydneysiders regularly frequent on weekdays. Or it could be that access to many events requires a multi-day pass costing more than $1,000.

There are single ticket events, expo passes and wristbands available for secondary access to events, but they still require a nearly $200 investment – without guaranteeing access.

They can also add to the chaos of popular events, such as Brooker, where people who line up half an hour before it starts are turned away, while late stragglers end up in overflow rooms (that are also full).

When Sydney hosted World Pride earlier this year, the arrival of an additional 500,000 queer people genuinely changed the feeling in the city – it was transformational. It’s clear that luring these large events to Australia can work in the right circumstances. But SXSW doesn’t feel quite the same.

Additional reporting by Yvonne C Lam.


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