It’s a very modern conjurer’s trick: Create a SXSW talk out of thin air, with the help of generative AI. That’s what whurley did this year in Austin.
It took nine weeks for whurley — a staple of the Austin tech scene — to create and prepare for a keynote at SXSW 2018, where he would debut Strangeworks, a quantum computing startup he co-founded and runs. Five years later, generative AI would complete the task in just a few hours.
And it was actually pretty good. The 45-minute speech was comprehensive, interesting and struck a whurley-like tone. There was one swear word (fuck) and a few jokes (including two lawyer ones) that the audience laughed at. It seemed that the trickiest part, at least while he was on stage, was reading the script the AI had provided off of his tablet. (Whurley is known for his free-wheeling style on the SXSW stage, where he is a regular.)
The kicker? He waited until the end to deliver the punchline.
“Everything today from the slides to the speech I’m reading now is created by generative AI,” he said onstage before launching into the how and why of it all. A buzz of whispers, wows and chuckles spread through the room filled with hundreds of SXSW attendees.
Strangeworks might just be the first startup to tap generative AI for all of its on — and off — stage content at SXSW. And while it’s a novel and fun demonstration, the experiment also illustrates the flexibility of AI tools and its growing popularity.
Why bother? Exposure and education, whurley told TechCrunch this week after the event.
“We are on the verge of the greatest period of technological advances in the history of mankind. I feel people are not only not ready for this, they’re not even aware it’s happening. I wanted to put a spotlight on it,” he said. “We’re going to see more changes in the next decade than we have in the past 100 years. People can naysay it all they want, but the technological change about to occur can not be stopped. The convergence of quantum computing and AI will be a step function, if not several step functions, for scientific discovery and advancement.”
The experiment started as many do — with a limited scope. Whurley used generative AI back in October 2022 to write a description for his SXSW talk entitled “Quantum AI: Why Your Future Depends on Quantum Computing & Artificial Intelligence.” And no he didn’t tell SXSW organizers.
“This all started with a prompt,” he said while onstage. “I said write a South by Southwest abstract of 800 words. Here’s the concept, here’s a title I gave it and a few points and everything you saw on South by Southwest website was created by ChatGPT. And I submitted it.”
ChatGPT is the image- and text-understanding AI model powered by GPT 3.5 and developed by OpenAI. A new version of the underlying engine, GPT-4, was released March 14.
His prompt was:
Write an 800 word abstract for a SXSW keynote for a session called “QuantumAI: Why your future depends on the convergence of Quantum Computing & Artificial Intelligence” in which the speaker discusses the advances in quantum computing and artificial intelligence, the challenges facing our species, and the inevitable convergence that may lead to a quantum super intelligence that will forever change our world.
Just days before the SXSW featured session, whurley decided to take it further. He asked the AI to use the abstract to create an outline of what the presentation might look like. After a few tweaks (or “reprompting” as he calls it), the outline met his approval.
This is great, I need to come up with enough slides to discuss this topic for an hour. Can you suggest what a potential out line for a 1 hour talk on this would be?
Whurley shared it with his team at Strangeworks and collectively they decided to go all in. “At that point, I told them the plan was to start on everything needed for the keynote tomorrow at 11:30 a.m.,” he told TechCrunch.
Strangeworks’ creative team Casey Barthels, Nicole Majeske and Ada Onyiuke used Midjourney, an AI generative art tool, to make the slides and graphics for the presentation. And then they upped the ante again by having Midjourney create the story and graphics in a seven-page printed publication featuring the Strangeworks mascot Schrody Cat. The publication was handed out to attendees.
“And then the night before last, I thought if did an outline, the abstract and all the slides, why can’t we just put words in my mouth too?” he said. Whurley took all of his previous prompts and fed it into GPT-4, which had been released Tuesday.
In other words, what would become the final script, graphics and slides were created the morning of the keynote. And they cut it close. “As we pulled into the hotel at almost 11 am on the dot, I took the final version of the script and cut and pasted it into the teleprompter software I had downloaded to my iPad,” he wrote to TechCrunch in a text following the event.
“It’s certainly the biggest risk I’ve ever taken at SXSW,” he said.
The generative AI was also used to create whurley’s personal website, which debuted Wednesday, featuring hundreds of blogs in whurley’s voice. He worked with collaborator David Hudson of Big Human on the blog project.
Those blogs were deleted to make way for another project that launched Thursday. The Strangeworks CEO ran the prompt through ChatGPT again, this time asking it to publish the website and blogs in 10 languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Italian and Arabic.
Whurley said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. He noted that a few people who are anti AI/technology have made snide comments or veiled threats via social media, but “again the detractors are few and far between.”