SXSW 2024: The First (But Not the Last) AI Track

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Every year, the SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas provides an opportunity for global policymakers and innovators to come together for a week of forward-focused discussion and experiences. It’s no surprise that this year’s agenda featured artificial intelligence (AI) prominently for the first time, with a focus on “the societal implications of AI as well as the ethics around its use.”

Glen Echo Group Vice President Rachel Wolbers was on the ground in Austin, working with SeedAI, a DC-based nonprofit building an ecosystem to power the constructive use of AI, to put together the organization’s third annual SXSW event. This SXSW event was part of SeedAI’s Hack the Future series, which brings together policymakers, AI experts, tech companies, artists and community college students to learn more about AI and help shape public policy. 

This year, SeedAI’s SXSW programming included hosting panel discussions with key leaders in AI, displaying the work of AI creators and running AI Skills Building exercises with students and networking events with the brilliant minds driving AI innovation. 

Upon her return, we chatted with Rachel about the AI insights she took away from this year’s event. 

As a vice president at the Glen Echo Group, Rachel helps clients develop their global third party engagement through coalition building, strategic communications and public policy campaigns. Prior to joining Glen Echo, Rachel was the Head of Global Engagement for Meta's Oversight Board where she created the organization's communications and engagement strategy. Rachel’s role within SeedAI is Senior Advisor, helping the organization achieve its mission of outreach across America by assisting with strategy, event planning, and philanthropy initiatives. 

Tell us more about the SeedAI event you helped organize. Who participated, and what was discussed? 

As the organizer of the event, my goal was to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders who are all working on AI―but frequently do not talk to each other. To ensure participants were learning more about AI, we put together a full day of programming with more than 15 demos from tech companies and artists, and an AI skills building program for community college students. 

We had over 1,000 people come through our SXSW activation in one day, including members of Congress and policymakers from the White House, the Office of the United States Trade Representative and the Department of Homeland Security. 

AI is already impacting society in so many ways, we knew the topics of discussion had to be wide-ranging. We covered a lot of ground, from national security, to trade and democracy, to arts and ethical AI practices for housing. 

Did you hear anything new or exciting that stood out during the event? 

One main theme from the day was that AI policy is everything policy―AI will touch every aspect of our lives. The panels were meant to show the wide range of experts thinking about AI’s impact on their respective fields. What’s important is that we realize each field does not need to think about AI from scratch, as there are likely to be cross-industry solutions. 

What was your main takeaway from the AI track and related discussions during SXSW as a whole? 

This was the first year SXSW had an AI track, replacing the crypto track. In some ways, the AI conversation is much more advanced than the crypto conversation ever was or could be. A big reason for this is that many companies have been using AI in their business practices for decades, but never really branded themselves as an AI company. Unlike with crypto, you have a lot more established brands willing to talk about the work they're doing in the AI space. I think the AI track is here to stay and will hopefully expand next year as the industry evolves. 

Why did you feel it was important to attend SXSW? What do you expect to come out of it? 

SXSW is always an important cultural touchstone as it draws high-profile people from around the world from Executive Vice-President of the European Commission Margrethe Vestager to actors and musicians like Selena Gomez to journalists like Axios co-founder Mike Allen. It is a clashing of worlds between tech, politics, media and pop culture that brings together a diverse group of passionate stakeholders. 

You can have meaningful and interesting conversations with anyone in Austin during SXSW―I really value the random interactions and chance encounters that can be remarkably significant. I always come out of SXSW with a bunch of new contacts, a better understanding of where groups are hoping to impact policy in the year ahead and a levity that can only come from eating tacos for an entire week with interesting people. 

What should others who couldn’t make it to Austin but pay attention to AI know about the discussions?

While people know AI is going to change every life fundamentally, there is still a tremendous amount of uncertainty around what that change will look like. Most stakeholders seem to want to develop the technology in a more thoughtful and conscientious way than how social media came about, but aren’t sure where the guardrails need to be just yet. There are a lot of people using AI in their daily lives that do not realize they’re even using it, so we need to educate users as well as policymakers as regulations are promulgated. 

Based on your experiences at SXSW, what should we be paying attention to for the future of AI policy? 

The Glen Echo Group understood the value of SXSW over a decade ago, launching Innovation Policy Day with the Consumer Technology Association. While the pandemic has had a lasting impact on the popularity of the SXSW conference, each year since reopening in 2022, more and more people have returned to Austin for music, film and policy conversations. The intersection of media, policymakers, tech companies large and small and creative industries cannot be replicated in any other event. SXSW provides a unique opportunity to have meaningful conversations with people you would not meet in Washington, San Francisco, New York or Brussels. There are tremendous branding and media opportunities as well as a large group of policymakers who attend each year. The official panels are important, but the side events are just as important with key networking and promotional opportunities. 

At the Glen Echo Group, we recognize the value of hosting creative events, with thoughtful details and unique partnerships that draw in a wider audience. In the last few years, we’ve organized in-person activations ranging from food trucks to interactive events incorporating XR technologies. 

When it comes to AI―and really, any tech policy issue up for debate―one of the most important learnings to conscientiously apply is that you must come at the issue with a well-rounded and informed approach that accounts for diverse perspectives. The risks are so much greater when whole groups of people are discounted as technology is developed. Technology, and the policy that guides its development, must be for everyone.