30/03/2016 11:34 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Artificial Intelligence: Not If But When. Plus Other Ways Your World Is About To Warp

Artificial intelligence
Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Carol & Mike Werner via Getty Images
Artificial intelligence

Remember 'Virtual Reality'? It was a thing in the '90s. You put on this giant space helmet and it allowed you to enter a world of brightly-coloured polygons -- it was a bit like being Max Headroom. It rightly fizzled, but now it's back with a vengeance.

There were no fewer than 40 different Virtual Reality seminars over the course of this year's SXSW Interactive festival, which saw tech leaders revisiting some ideas of yesteryear, having another crack, and succeeding handsomely. It seems that everything old is new again.

SXSW 2016 speakers discussed the impact it will have on news, storytelling, gaming, sound design, music videos, tourism, sport and, of course, porn. I tried it (the gear, not the porn) and it is light years ahead of what we once called Virtual Reality.

Remember Artificial Intelligence? It was a concept in a lot of '80s sci-fi. Filmmakers tended to portray it in the form of a sinister robot overlord. The reality? It was just really really good at chess. After a dormant period, investigation of AI has resurged in recent years, and that was certainly evident in Austin, where SXSW took place.

The advent of 'deep learning' has renewed hopes (and fears) that we will create a machine capable of learning new things (instead of just becoming brilliant at one thing). Everybody I heard speak on the topic agreed that the day is approaching. The only disagreement relates to how close that day is, and whether or not we should be concerned about it.

Remember the motor vehicle? 130-year-old, oil-spluttering packhorse of the industrial revolution? It's getting its biggest innovation since invention. To paraphrase a hundred whisky-soaked country songs -- it don't need you no more.

The Google Self-Driving Car project has racked up almost 1.5 million miles. That's 60 times around the circumference of the Earth. And this truly auto automobile has had just one accident -- on Valentine's Day this year. Google's Chris Urmson explained what happened. I won't bore you with it. Rest assured it was a very minor incident. The rest of us would have had countless bingles doing that sort of mileage.

Self-driving tech is not just a facelift for the transportation. Its effects will flow to every aspect of our lives, and cities will change before our eyes. "Parking stations can become parks," declared former Google engineer Seval Oz. There will be significant reductions in congestion and travel times. Best of all, fatalities on our roads could become an anomaly rather than a steady toll. Your daily commute could become a time to get work done...or perhaps a time when content producers and advertisers do their work on you. You might buy a weekender eight hours from where you live, because you can leave on Friday night and just sleep the whole way. Have one for the road -- hell, make it a double -- you're not driving.

As with AI, the debate is around when this will happen -- not if. One pundit put it this way: "If you're old enough to drive today, there's a good chance your children will never learn to drive."

Then there was 'This American Life' broadcaster Ira Glass talking about the advertiser dollars that are flooding into the podcasting industry. He described incredulously the scenario of his investigative journo friends who are being laid off by major newspapers, while he is expanding his long-term investigative journalism capability. On his radio show.

Did I mention one of the most interesting talks of the week was about the unique emotive properties of the GIF? Alex Chung of GIPHY made an impassioned and inspiring case for the grainy, silent, looping, 30-year-old file format. He also launched the world's first GIF studio, a company that employs 500 graphic artists to create "high production-value GIFs".

But perhaps the most ambitious revision was saved for last. The closing keynote was given by Andy Puddicombe, founder of His goal? No less than reviving the 3,000-year-old practice of meditation, with a tech twist. Puddicombe himself is a former monk, and has attempted to package up his Himalayan learning into an array of short, guided meditations, accessible through the slickly designed Headspace app. In an age where we are less 'present' than ever, Puddicombe is treating the problem at what many consider to be its source -- the smartphone.

The climax of his speech rendered us speechless. Puddicombe led a packed house at the Austin Convention Centre in a 10-minute meditation. Thousands of us sat in complete silence, just focusing on our breath. It was a new experience, and a very, very old one.