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Helen Todd is co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared and the human behind Creativity Squared.
Hugh Forrest serves as Co-President and Chief Programming Officer for South by Southwest (SXSW).

Ep17. Hugh Forrest: A.I. Hype Cycle or Not?

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Ep17. A.I. Hype Cycle or Not? SXSW Co-President and Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest Discusses A.I., Tech Trends, and the Importance of Community

In Episode 17, we have Hugh Forrest who serves as Co-President and Chief Programming Officer for South by Southwest (SXSW) which includes SXSW Interactive, one of the largest tech conferences in the world helping creative people achieve their goals. 

Founded in 1987 in Austin, Texas, SXSW is best known for its conference and festivals, for which Hugh oversees all of the content, that celebrate the convergence of tech, film, music, education, and culture. 

Hugh holds many accolades, including “Austinite of the Year” in 2012 from the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and he was named one of the Austin Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2014 by Ernst & Young. Hugh was also awarded a Key to the City in January 2023 by Austin Mayor Steve Adler, and received an honorary doctorate in 2018 from Kenyon College, his alma mater. In 2021, he was awarded Diversity Champion of the Year by the Austin Black Business Journal. Through his decades of work with the Austin Reggae Festival, he has helped to raise more than $1 million in funding for the Central Texas Food Bank.

The next SXSW will take place March 8-16, 2024 in Austin, Texas.

In this conversation, you’ll hear Hugh’s unique perspective on trends at the intersection of tech, culture, and creativity, including lessons from the social media revolution for our current zeitgeist that encompasses all things artificial intelligence. 

A.I. can be a fantastic thing that can make our human experience all the more human, creative, and magical. Or it can be something that is significantly less. I hope that we learned the lessons of what we didn’t do in social media, and bring this to the A.I. world.”

Hugh Forrest

Discover what’s on the horizon for next year’s SXSW Interactive where A.I. will be all the buzz with over 250 speaker proposals submitted! The conference programming will also include sessions on virtual and augmented reality, quantum computing, the creator economy, synthetic biology, climate change, and more. 

In this episode, Hugh considers whether A.I. is part of a hype cycle and discusses the need for guardrails on it. He also shares the importance and power of community in this moment in time. 

Credit: Damon Webster

The Festival

SXSW wasn’t always the iconic cultural and technological event that it is today. When Hugh, a native of Austin, became the first paid employee of SXSW in the late 80’s (thanks to him being one of few people who owned a desktop computer at the time!), it was only a music festival. 

“When [SXSW Founder, Roland Swenson] called me back in 1988 about using my computer, I never envisioned that this would be more than just a two-day gig. I never had any conception that we would grow this thing to the size and scale that it’s been fortunate enough to grow to.”

Hugh Forrest

They first started expanding the festival’s offerings by adding film showcases as well as multimedia in 1994. Yet, as technology’s relationship with art production grew ever closer, Hugh said he and his fellow organizers had a hard time bringing in an audience for the technology aspects of the festival. 

At some point, Hugh says he and Roland doubted whether they could successfully bring the art and technology communities together in the way they envisioned – until Twitter came along.

“Eventually, in the early or mid-2000s, we ended up being in the right place at the right time on social media, where a lot of the early pioneers in the space were at SXSW.”

Hugh Forrest

SXSW is where Twitter was able to generate the buzz it needed in 2007 to get its usership metrics off the ground. As the social media landscape continued to evolve, SXSW became a hotspot for startups looking to raise funding and venture capitalists looking for the next unicorn. 

Fast forward to this year, when SXSW hosted over a quarter-million attendees in Austin over two weeks, featuring 1,500-2,000 panels and presentations, 300-400 film showings, and around 1,500 live performances from a global collection of bands. 

Looking back, Hugh says it’s been “one hell of a ride.”

Looking forward, Hugh says that he wants SXSW to continue to be a place for the celebration of the two C’s: creativity and community. He says that fostering community at SXSW is increasingly on his mind, amid what sociologists have called “the great de-churching,” referring to the breakdown of traditional community-building institutions like churches, whose membership is in steep decline. 

Credit: “The Obama Foundation”

A.I., Tech Hype Cycles, and Responsible Adoption

Through his tenure at SXSW, Hugh has been in the front row to witness many of the greatest (and not-so-great) technological innovations of the modern age. Social media has certainly cemented its place in culture and the economy. The same can’t be said, though, for some of the other technologies that have taken center stage at the festival in recent years, such as cryptocurrency and the metaverse, among others. Meta seems more interested in developing A.I. right now than in developing the technology behind its new namesake. Similarly, 2022 saw the bubble burst for NFT’s and Bitcoin is trading around 60% lower from its all-time high in 2021. 

Will the same be true for artificial intelligence? Hugh is hedging his bets, saying he’s been through so many hype cycles with SXSW that he still holds “some small amount of skepticism that this is just one more.”

Ultimately, though, Hugh thinks we’re in a different place with A.I. citing the real-world A.I. applications already in use, and the potential for the technology to change our collective future. Hugh believes that A.I. will outlast the hype generated by its relative newness, and one reason is how easy it is to understand. 
However, Hugh acknowledges that there needs to be more forethought put into averting the worst outcomes of an A.I. Dilemma, rather than embracing the culture of “move fast and break things” that contributed to our current Social Dilemma.

“A lot of us really bought into this idea that social media was going to eliminate divisions in our society. And there have been a lot of really great things from social media. That said, there have been a lot of negative things that we did not fully anticipate when this age started.”

Hugh Forrest

Yet, he says there is cause for cautious optimism, especially from the European Union, which is working on their framework for regulating artificial intelligence. And, of course, those efforts are reflected at SXSW, with presentations from the likes of European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, who’s spent the last 10 years holding tech companies accountable for privacy violations and other social harms. 


We’re airing this episode right after the close of public voting for the speakers that will grace the stages at SXSW 2024. No surprise: A.I. is shaping up to be a central topic again next year, with over 250 presentation proposals directly focused on artificial intelligence. This year, A.I. is getting its own “track,” or standalone category, at the conference.

Beyond A.I., 2024 is looking like it will be a big year for SXSW in general. Hugh says that they haven’t received so many speaker proposals in more than five years. Some of the other big topics will include virtual and augmented reality, quantum computing, synthetic biology, transportation, climate change, and renewable energy. Alongside A.I., the creator economy will also be getting its own track in 2024 as well as a new fashion and beauty track. 

Even though public voting is now closed, you can look through all the proposals under consideration for SXSW 2024 on the festival’s panel picker web interface (you’ll need to create a free account if you don’t have one). 

Creativity and Community

“One of the ironies of South by Southwest is that there’s a huge focus on Tech, but we always find that [new communication technologies] are not as powerful as face-to-face interactions, giving people a platform to connect with each other in person in real-time, and the power of that.”

Hugh Forrest

While the technology will get a lot of the buzz, Hugh says SXSW is just as much about the people as it’s ever been. As the community grows more diverse, more interconnected, more democratized, the value of the whole experience increases in tandem. Through the cycles of the newest tech hype, Hugh says that it will be hard for any one innovation to eclipse the simple power of gathering a bunch of smart, passionate, ambitious people at the same place and letting the magic flow. 

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Thank you, Hugh, for being our guest on Creativity Squared. 

This show is produced and made possible by the team at PLAY Audio Agency: https://playaudioagency.com.  

Creativity Squared is brought to you by Sociality Squared, a social media agency who understands the magic of bringing people together around what they value and love: http://socialitysquared.com.

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