SXSW Interactive 2016 was a study in a world where talking, intelligent machines become part of our every day reality. It debated the role of computing in that world. Would the lines between humans and computers blur, and what would be the consequences? Alternatively, would intelligent machines gain their own identities, intermingling happily with humans? If so, what would the implications be for brands?

Either way it was clear that computing would now escape traditional computing interfaces, namely, screens, and with that, the limits of time spent with screens. Computing will infiltrate more and more non-computing moments, enabling more opportunities for brands to interact. Measures will need to be taken to ensure that in this new computer-enhanced reality, humans remain in charge.

Some key takeaways:

  • Computing in the service of Humans

Computing is starting to add far greater value to people. For example Capital One’s new integration with Amazon’s Echo means you can pay bills simply by saying the word. As Capital One’s head of engineering put it, “everything else (in computing) has been a workaround to Alexa, which truly is intuitive.”

  • Computing needs to remain an opt-in, consensual experience.

Today, the fact of needing to use, carry, or actively wear a device, is a natural proxy for opting in. However, as computers become more embedded, the default mode will lean towards ‘always-on.’ In order for people to stay in control, we will actively need to prepare to set these boundaries.

  • Brain-computer interaction is in our sights, but the perils will outweigh the why.

At “Beyond the Screen,” we heard how computers would one day be able to read our thoughts, and how the brain itself would become the input device. But what would be the point of this? When it comes to the brain as input device, there is the inherent risk of the computers misinterpreting our pre-conscious thought as an outward command. For example, you wouldn’t want a door to open just because your thoughts wandered to where we might be going next. Brain-interface computing will require double-verification, such as voice, to consciously approve a command. In most cases, this is all more hassle than it’s worth. People are communicators and asynchronous interlocutors by nature. Technology must speak our language in order to feel useful and safe.

  • Voice is gaining traction, but speaking-as a-medium might just be a bit too much effort. 

Even though voice seems like the most frictionless medium for conversation, typing or texting, is actually more convenient, because it requires less effort. Text messaging requires less cognitive and physical work than speaking. With text, you can respond in your own time, and need not pay attention for such intense bouts, and concern yourself with having to convey the right tone, while on the spot.

Also, though tech requires interacting with a tech device, and may take longer, it does employ dexterity, a distinctly human skill. The dexterous, conversational interface a.k.a messaging, will prevail for now as the native conversational medium. With messaging, we might be reaching peak user experience.

  • Computing will take the form of digital personas; will need to learn the rules of friendship. 

The future of computing in our sights is where brands and things adopt digital personas which we will interact with as naturally and happily as we do with real people. Brands will play out their value through the medium of conversation, within the very environments where people engage with each other. There is a massive upside here for brands who get it right, build trust and add value to people’s lives. The challenge will be to get people to opt in to these relationships. Brands will need a to adopt a strategy to enrich people’s lives, over time, while maintaining the self-awareness humility to know their place. This will be of paramount importance, as once this delicate balance is breached, that consumer will be lost forever.