Web3 and the metaverse—which were the hot topics at last year’s conference—were all but unheard of at SXSW 2023. What was everyone talking about in their place? AI.

In fact, in the featured session titled “How AI and the Metaverse will Shape Society,” keynote speaker Ian Beacraft only gave the metaverse the briefest of mentions. And even then, Beacraft attributed the future success of the metaverse to AI: “The metaverse needs AI to become what it’s going to become,” the Signal and Cipher CEO and chief futurist proclaimed.

“Every aspect of life is going to be sort of amplified by this technology,” Greg Brockman, cofounder and president of ChatGPT creator OpenAI, said in another session on the impact of generative AI. “It’s going to be a tool, just like the cell phone in your pocket.”

And while there were countless sessions on generative AI, the discussions went far beyond its immediate creative potential. “It’s not just about creating with AI. It’s about relating to AI,” Beacraft said. “We’re actually going to have some sort of relationship with it,” he said, which will ultimately lead to “interactions where we can’t tell the difference between a human and an AI.”

Keanu Reeves on explaining The Matrix to teens tiktok verge

Beacraft shared an anecdotal example to bring this to life. In a video of Keanu Reeves being interviewed, Reeves recounts a personal story about explaining The Matrix to a 13-year-old who had never seen the film. “There’s this guy who’s in a kind of virtual world, and he finds out that there’s a real world, and he’s really questioning what’s real and what’s not real, and he really wants to know what’s real.” Reeves says in the video. The 13-year-old responded by asking “Why?” “And I was like, ‘…what do you mean?,’” Reeves recalls. “She was like, ‘who cares if it’s real?’ And I was like, ‘you don’t care if it’s real?’ And she was like, ‘No.’”

After playing the video—which was met with disbelieving and nervous laughter—Beacraft emphasized that this is our future reality. “We’re at a point,” Beacraft said, “where we have to understand how many of [gen Alpha’s] friends are real and how many are synthetic. And frankly, it may or may not matter.”

The first hints of this future are already appearing. Catriona Campbell, an artificial intelligence expert from the UK, predicts that virtual children are likely to become commonplace by the early 2070s. “Virtual children may seem like a giant leap from where we are now, but within 50 years technology will have advanced to such an extent that babies which exist in the metaverse are indistinct from those in the real world,” Campbell told South West News Service last year. “This will lead to the first, fully digital demographic which, although somewhat strange on first appearance, in fact represents what could be one of mankind’s most important technological breakthroughs since the advent of the Bronze Age, given its potential impact on global populations and societal change.”

As Amplify chief creative officer Jeavon Smith and executive creative director Alex Wilson said in a SXSW panel on Worldbuilding, experiences may be virtual, but they have real emotional impact: “It’s not a virtual memory just because it’s in the virtual world.”

Beacraft assured the audience that this is the promise of AI, not its peril. “It’s about creating human connection in different spaces,” he stressed.

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