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Lotsa Love, a bunch of Ethics and plenty of Cannabis

Well, another SxSW Interactive has come and gone. This year’s version seemed to feel a bit like an homage to the sixties. We had politics, we had more Love, we had “that’s heavy, man” ethical discussions; and all with a layer of weed (albeit the legal kind).

New Jersey’s own Senator Cory Booker kicked things off on day one with his opening keynote which centered around Love over Tolerance. Cory challenged all the attendees to not use the rhetoric of tolerance, but rather the language of love. To paraphrase his words, “Tolerance builds fences, love rips them down. Tolerance crosses the street. Love confronts and embraces.” He shared a very personal story of one of his community heroes from the streets of Newark who, even though he is slowly going blind and dying, continued to use the phrase “I see you” as a metaphor for truly being present and truly acknowledging each other’s existence.

Van Jones followed up some of Cory’s sentiments while wearing his Love Army pin. Van, who I think everyone expected to come out swinging at Trump, did anything but. Van spoke of the tribal media environment which we are now dealing with, where any act of concession or an act of kindness across party lines is an act of treason and the “traitor” label is swiftly applied. Van, although still very much a liberal, has spent a lot of his time recently visiting “honest folks” in the Midwest and has come out with a deep and profound sense of the validity, respect and sincerity of their beliefs. He wrapped up his talk with a story of being a Dad of soccer-playing boys and how, as they come off the field after a loss, all he hears is “the other team cheated,” “the ref wasn’t fair,” etc., which he listens to until the car ride home where he then begins the talk with his boys about what they think they could have done better to win the game instead. He ended his talk welcoming us, and all of America, to “the car ride home”.

Jennifer Doudna, a brilliant molecular biologist and chemist from Berkeley, gave us a deep and compelling story of “science meets technology meets society.” After she went through explaining things like Clusters of Regularly Repeating Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPRs) using what she was calling “cartoons” that felt to me more like coded documents of the Illuminati, she got into what I could actually grasp, which was the ethics of the use of this DNA splicing technology. The technology, which she describes as “incredibly easy” to execute, has the ability to eradicate disease; however, it can also be used to enhance desired human physical traits. The challenge, of course, is in the ethical implementation of such a great scientific tool.

This year, SxSW was not surprisingly littered with talk about Artificial Intelligence, but what I found most interesting was that the discussions weren’t so much about how cool the tech is, but rather how we need to be responsible and ethical in its deployment. Many sessions covered this conundrum from different angles. There were sessions such as “AI and Deep Learning Tech: Are We Ready?”, “AI for Good”, “AI in America: Preparing Our Kids”, “Artificial Intelligence That Helps You Save”, and speakers such as Sapient’s Melanie Cook, who made the strong argument for human Intelligence Augmentation strengthening the human-machine symbiosis over independent Artificial Intelligence (AI:IA).

Finally, there was the weed, well, cannabis to be exact. At the Trade Show this year we had the Hemp Doctors touting “Healthy Not High” and there were pain management products such as CBD for Life, which I myself picked up and successfully carried back through TSA. There were also sessions that covered the business aspects of cannabis, such as “Breaking the Grass Ceiling: Women, Weed & Business”, “Silicon Valley 2.0: Cannabis Startups”, as well as “Modern Cannabis: From Ditch Weed to Tech Disruptor”. All this indicates that the business of cannabis has arrived and is growing, pun intended, right alongside all the great Tech startups.

A little bonus of being in Texas instead of Jersey was I successfully avoided having to shovel the 18” of snow that covered my house, but maybe next year I’ll just attend as a Chatbot of myself… and be a lot less exhausted afterward.