The Dolly 360 robotic device made by KidsPlates is demonstrated at the 2017 South By Southwest Interactive Festival. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

South by Southwest Festival Goes From Tech Back-Slapping to Brooding Introspection

(Bloomberg) -- The South by Southwest festival is normally a celebration of technology and a frenzied search for the hottest new startup. This year's event will be dominated by somber assessments of the industry's impact on society.

The annual event in Austin, Texas -- sometimes described as spring break for Silicon Valley --  starts Friday and features art shows, film screenings, tech demos and speaker panels exploring the intersection of politics, innovation and culture.

While discussions about tech ethics are a perennial favorite, the topic has taken on fresh urgency and is the focus of more than a dozen panels.  

Revelations around the use of Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and YouTube to spread misinformation, influence the U.S. presidential election in 2016 and recruit terrorists have prompted closer scrutiny of social networks and their responsibility to police content on their sites.

"Tech companies have created platforms that have allowed malicious actors to flourish. If they don't solve the problem, Washington will attempt to," said Megan Reiss, senior national security fellow at think tank R Street Institute.

Senator Mark R. Warner, the Democratic vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, will appear on two panels exploring the changing nature of warfare and how U.S. adversaries used misinformation, cybercrime and weaponized leaks to sow discord in the U.S.  While political pressure has pushed some tech companies to change their policies - Twitter removed politicized bots from the platform -- threats to future elections and first amendment rights remain and some conservative users say they have been unfairly targeted.   Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont  and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will talk about the power of technology in shaping current events.

Digital surveillance is also a theme. With a nod to the Precrime division featured in Philip K. Dick's book "The Minority Report," science futurist and bestselling author David Brin will discuss how predictive policing is already here. From the increasing number of U.S. adults in facial recognition databases to wider use of drones and the popularity of data-mining capabilities from companies like Palantir Technologies Inc., law enforcement agencies have powerful tools that could be abused.

Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch will discuss the flaws of current systems and the safeguards needed to prevent abuse as technology becomes ever more powerful. Some jurisdictions, like New Orleans, procure the technology with little public oversight, according to The Verge.

"Predictive policing algorithms aren't going to be more effective than police on the street," said Lynch. "It's based on historical data and that data is flawed."

Lynch pointed to underreported crimes, like rape, and inaccurate technologies, like facial recognition, as especially problematic.

Other panels will focus on balancing individual freedoms with national security.  Recruiting efforts by ISIS and other terrorists groups to connect with and then radicalize people on social networks make it especially relevant.

Facebook's lead manager on counterterrorism, Brian Fishman, former U.S. Department of Homeland Security Chief Technology Officer Mike Hermus and others will discuss the  responsibilities tech companies have in weighing individual rights and security and how that could change.

The scope of discussions around ethics and responsible use of technology also extends to personal mental health.  A growing recognition of the addictive nature of technology has put the onus on the likes of Snapchat, Facebook and others to reevaluate the design of their services even as they grow rich off user attention.

According to a study by Common Sense Media  last year, 50 percent of teens surveyed say they're addicted to their mobile device, while 69 percent of parents check their devices at least hourly. And nomophobia now has its own dictionary entry.

 

To contact the author of this story: Lizette Chapman in San Francisco at lchapman19@bloomberg.net.

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