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Tech talk, hoofing it and diversion at Gartner Symposium 2016

Market researcher Gartner hosted more than 8,000 CIOs and other IT leaders at its annual Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, Fla., last week. The draws? Presentations on technology trends like cloud computing, the internet of things and artificial intelligence. And guest speakers Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO — who didn’t show up in person because of a back injury and instead spoke over live satellite — former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins.

And it’s hosted each year in Walt Disney World.

Analyst presentations were spread out among four hotels and convention centers, and walking distances between one to another could take 20 minutes. With 30 minutes between sessions, there were a lot of people in suits walking swiftly in the Florida heat. And there were a lot of people with blisters. SearchCIO’s editorial director, Sue Troy, learned from the attendant at the medical station that blisters are the No. 1 injury at the event. Sue was there for foot plasters.

But there were easier ways of getting around at Gartner Symposium 2016. Golf carts emblazoned with the Gartner logo zipped about from the Dolphin Hotel to the Disney Yacht Club to the Boardwalk Inn, picking up and dropping off passengers. Rickshaws gave drivers a workout on 80-plus-degree days, but attendees rode in style.

Conference goers ride in a rickshaw at the  Gartner Symposium/ITxpo.

Around the venues, signs warned people to stay clear of the water — a grim reminder of the alligator attack in June that took the life of a 2-year-old boy. Inside, alongside sumptuous midafternoon desserts set out for conference goers was a display stocked with packets of sunscreen and insect repellent. There was a spot for hand sanitizer, but it was empty. There was lots of insect repellent, though, evidence perhaps that the Zika virus scare in Miami, three and a half hours away, was too far-off to seem like an immediate threat here.

The speeches drew crowds of thousands. One on Sunday night featured a guest speaker whose expertise is not technology but behavioral economics. Dan Ariely, a Duke University social scientist and author of Predictably Irrational, spoke about why people make the decisions they do, even when common sense may tell them otherwise.

He asked the audience how many people had texted while driving in the last month. A number of hands went up. It’s something we all recognize is a bad idea, Ariely said. No one tries to rationalize it with, say, a cost-benefit analysis.

“It’s not as if people say, ‘I thought about this text message: How much do I want to stay alive? How much do I want to kill other people?'” he said to laughs. “No. We know it’s stupid; we vow not to do it, but when our phone vibrates, we become different people.”

Behavioral economist and psychologist Dan Ariely speaks to an audience at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo.

In the keynote speech, which set the tone for Gartner Symposium 2016 and advised CIOs and tech leaders to lead the way toward a digital future, Gartner analysts Daryl Plummer and Hung LeHong demonstrated an interaction with a virtual assistant powered by artificial intelligence, Amelia. She smiled and waved, answered some questions and then offered Plummer some unsolicited advice about exercise to alleviate stress.

“Have you noticed that all of the virtual assistants are female?” he asked the audience. “It seems that we run the risk of embedding gender bias into digital. We must embrace gender diversity in the digital world as well as we would in the physical.”

Within three to five years, Plummer said, 50% of all analytic interactions will be delivered through artificial intelligence.

Each year Gartner invites attendees to a “special event,” typically at a theme park in the Orlando area. Last year it was Epcot. At Gartner Symposium 2016 it was off Disney’s grounds, at Universal Studios Florida. People strolled through replicas of New York and San Francisco, visited The Simpsons‘ garish Springfield and had their pictures taken with a giant Transformer.

They also window-shopped in cobblestoned Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter book and film series. Looking for it, I walked straight past what looked like a London streetscape. Then I noticed a triple-decker bus — more Potter than Piccadilly — walked through an archway and saw an enormous stone dragon atop goblin-operated Gringotts Bank breathe a plume of fire.

A Gartner Symposium/ITxpo attendee poses for a photograph with a character from the Transformers film series.

More than meets the eye.