Mar 23, 2017

SXSW Wrap-up: A First-person Report from Blackstone’s CTO Bill Murphy

I traveled to the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) last week to moderate a panel on the importance of building and leveraging networks to support college entrepreneurs, drawing upon insights from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation’s program,  Blackstone LaunchPad. The panel featured John Hill of Tech Stars, Rei Wang of DormRoomFund and Alex Crosby, a student entrepreneur that got his start in the Blackstone LaunchPad program. Our discussion focused on ways to effectively leverage and optimize networks, a common problem for us all, and stressed the importance of organizations collaborating to maximize impact. Meeting other entrepreneurs from our Texas campuses and more broadly in our Blackstone network, it was energizing to see how our support plays a critical role in convening these campus communities to help them to learn, collaborate and gain a more global perspective.

SXSW Bill Murphy

Afterward, I got to spend some time exploring the topics of the conference and, while the hundreds of sessions are overwhelming, it is invigorating to feel the energy of this community.  

Artificial Intelligence (AI) was definitely the topic of the week at SXSW – and what it means for the labor market of the future. The difference I sensed was the absolute certainty that the SXSW attendees show versus the relative calm of the general public and big corporations with the same disruption: There is a clear disconnect on how quickly and how dramatic the transformations will be. This speaks to the growing divide of opinion on how hard it is to truly disrupt something and what the definition of that really is – is gaining 5 percent of a market a major disruption? It is definitely lucrative for the innovator, but changing the world takes longer and more sustained success than that. 

Walking through the exhibit floor, seeing all the new products, it became clear to me that the words artificial intelligence do not accurately describe the current state of affairs. While some AI is being deployed, Augmenting Humans so we can be better and more efficient is much closer to the truth. From household robots, strength augmentation robotic skeletons, to simple workflow software, better ad targeting, etc. – these are all ways to improve what we do now versus revolutionary disruptions. In my opinion, we have a long tail of these incremental improvements to make us all more efficient before the truly autonomous capabilities become commonplace. 

VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) have clearly gone from bleeding edge to leading edge – the amount of really specific solutions for all kinds of use cases was telling. It seems this is the year it moves from just fun and games to a real tool for business. The real benefits won’t be in games, but will bring benefits for workers, shoppers and other parts of the value chain. The amount of authoring and filming tools was telling: The cost of creating content is plummeting in this area. 

I also came away with a few interesting tactics – one was a presentation technique where the presenters are forced to forward slides every 15 seconds with auto-advance. It forces the presenters to think through and prepare and definitely something we will try in our technology team here. Also, the concept of a problem box to alert management to problems – I wonder if this should exist as we strive for openness on our team where everyone speaks up, but worth a try. 

I was a bit jolted by one session in particular on the law behind digital ownership vs the traditional view of ownership of goods. The ability for companies to affect how you use “your” products after you buy them was not a topic I had fully grasped before. Consumers will need to decide how much control is worth and whether or not to punish with their wallets the companies that exert too much control. 

All in all, you can’t help but come away from the experience feeling optimistic about the world and how we can solve any problem with enough focus, hard work and ingenuity. It was great interacting with the Blackstone LaunchPad network and the broader tech community.