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Every year in March the tech world descends upon our humble little hometown here in Austin for SXSW. The conference, and corresponding festival, is undoubtedly one of the tentpole events for the tech industry, one in which agendas are set, trends are initiated, and the “next big thing” gets launched.

The real reason that SXSW is so influential, though, is that it’s not simply tech companies talking to other tech companies, as is the case at many other conferences. SXSW brings a cross-industry perspective, where tech intersects with everything from government and global brands to sports and fashion, and, of course, music and film.

One of the biggest tech trends shaping up at this year’s SXSW is bots. 2016 was undoubtedly the year of bots, with nearly every social network and messaging service making a play to attract bot developers. Panels at SXSW are predictably taking on the bot craze, but the question that seems to be driving much of the conversation is: What now?

The cross-industry appeal of SXSW allows for discussions of bots in some entirely new ways. The sheer range of bot conversations this year emphasizes not only their potential, but also the challenges we face in crafting bot strategies and building bots on a growing number of platforms.


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Below, we’ve highlighted some of our favorite panels that will be tackling bot issues at SXSW, outlining some of the trends we see emerging from the programming. The presentations and panels around bots extend to everything from “bot activism” to how the “conversational economy” is reshaping commerce to even how artists are working with bots.

Brands and customer engagement

It’s no surprise that brands and agencies have been at the forefront of experimenting with bots, looking for new ways to engage with customers and take advantage of social networks and messaging. After all, you want to be where your customers are and continuously improve on their experience.

Yet there are still growing pains as bot technologies rapidly mature. We can expect a lot of discussion about tackling the challenges of scaling bots across platforms, making sure that they reflect brand values as they engage customers, and about how we measure the success of bot engagements.

Representatives from Capital One and 1-800-FLOWERS will tackle questions about bots and brands, like “How does conversational marketing change the ‘relationship’ between consumer and brand, if at all?” And “Is the marketing bot trend really serving customers better through more personalized and personable interactions?”

With representatives from Amazon, Yahoo, Assist, and Pandorabots, this panel will look at how bots are making for unlikely partnerships between companies and platforms and how they are changing the way consumers search for and discover information.

A look at lessons learned in developing Facebook Messenger bots over the past year, with participants from Facebook and developer partners. They’ll discuss best practices, but also how bots are making designers and developers “reconsider interaction models, manage platform risk, and lead users into a new conversational paradigm.”

Hubspot CTO and cofounder Dharmesh Shah will talk about building the popular GrowthBot for Slack and how bots can drive growth and productivity for businesses.

Commerce and bots

One of the areas where bots are having the most transformative impact is commerce. Here, bots are creating easier and faster payment options and are also shifting the entire nature of selling from purely transactional to conversational.

Perhaps even more interesting is that bots are beginning to make buying decisions for us, and we’re seeing transactions between algorithms in what the panel calls B2A marketing. There will be a great deal of discussion this year around the upsides and drawbacks of algorithmic commerce.

Representatives from Bazaarvoice and VSA Partners will discuss what happens when an AI becomes the consumer and customer. As the description says: “The AI robot overlords are coming, and they have credit cards. This panel will discuss the potential implications and methods of a B2A marketing and the industries most likely to see an impact.”

Accenture’s Rob Harles will look at how brands are investing in conversation as a sales and customer engagement strategy and how this is giving rise to a new “conversational economy.” He’ll also dive into some specific examples of how bots are being deployed across a number of industries.

It seems with almost every new technology, new payment capabilities arise. That is certainly true of bots, but this panel looks beyond just messaging and bots to how everything from augmented reality to social networks is transforming commerce.

This is another presentation from Accenture that takes a broad view of the technological shifts transforming commerce. In addition to bots, Stefan Therond, head of Accenture’s Interactive Innovation Center, will explore UX innovations propelled by AI, AR, and VR.

A panel of entertainment powerhouses discusses the challenges of bots around scalping. While algorithmic transactions are propelling some industries, they pose a threat to others, and TicketMaster, along with developer Next IT, will explain what precautions need to be taken.

Building bots

Bot developers will also have any number of opportunities to show off their work during SXSW, and not only within the Code and Development track. There will be several sessions and workshops specifically focused on building bots.

Even more importantly though, we’ll begin to see a lot of discussion around how companies and developers can start thinking more strategically about bots and syndicating them across platforms, as well as lessons learned from the past year of the bot rush.

This official three-hour workshop from Topbots and Xanadu Mobile promises to be an intense crash course and requires an RSVP to attend. Geared toward brand executives and marketers, the focus is less on getting your hands dirty developing bots than getting your strategy together and understanding how you actually want to use bots and how they tie into your organization’s bigger AI strategy and goals.

The CEO of Kiwi (Sequel) and product manager from Kik will dive into the big bot trends of the past year and what we can learn from them. They’ll focus on how developers can build better bots without reinventing the wheel, and, on the other side, how companies can work better with bot developers.

Mutual Mobile’s Tricia Katz will lead participants through a workshop on how to begin thinking about and building bots for Facebook Messenger.

Luis Sentis from the University of Texas will take the bot discussion to the next level by focusing on coding more realistic and receptive robots. Sentis’ presentation will be an intensive delight for developers as it delves into “practical computational questions and frame cognitive modeling problems” to create more useful behaviors.

Bots and beyond

While most of the attention on bots over the past year has been on new trends in customer engagement and commerce with major brands, other organizations are beginning to see the value of bots, as well, and beginning to deploy them for any number of interesting purposes.

Whether it’s activists and journalists using automation to break down barriers to information or academics using them for research or artists beginning to experiment with them as a medium, bots are breaking out of their box and are showing up in some fascinating projects.

Noting that journalists, researchers, and activists are now using bots to test internet platforms and processes for fairness, the ACLU looks at how these technologies are being used and how bots are being hampered by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Journalists have their hands full fact-checking, these days more than ever, but they also have more information at their fingertips than ever before. And bots are helping in the cause. This panel of journalists, researchers, and fact-checkers will describe how bots help verify information and claims in real time amid frantically breaking news.

Joshua Browder’s DoNotPay bot garnered a lot of attention for appealing over 175,000 parking tickets in London and started a bot movement. Browder will discuss DoNotPay and what’s next as he expands his efforts to create more bots to help everyday citizens navigate legal systems.

Arthur Simone, cofounder of the ColdTowne Theater in Austin, has long explored combining robotics and electronics with performances. With help from social roboticists at Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and University of Texas, he developed the robot Annabelle, which will host University of Alberta researcher Kory Mathewson and his “embodied cognition” Pyggy. If you’re looking for the future, you’ll find it at this exhibition!

Of course, tons of other informal meetups, parties, and side discussions about bots will be hosted during SXSW. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Liz Winkler is the director of Product Management at

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