A futurist’s reflections on CES 2019

I’ve been to many Consumer Electronics Shows over the years. I’ve done booth duty, I’ve spoken on panel sessions, and of course I’ve walked the halls. This year, after I’d spoken at a couple of future-focused panels, I took 4-5 hours to roam with the nerd herd and see as much of the latest CES tech as I could.

There was a lot of rubbish. But that’s always the case at every CES.

As a futurist scanning the floor of CES, I’m looking for the signals amongst the significant amount of noise. These signals point us toward the longer-term directions of the industry and illustrate which ideas are sticking and finding support, and which are floundering. This report is about those signals, and what they mean for the future.

AI and AI-washing

“AI-washing” everywhere

“AI-washing” everywhere

You couldn’t walk ten feet without seeing some mention of AI, machine learning, or neural networks at CES this year. Some brands were showing really interesting applications of AI, while others seemed to have let their marketing departments run wild, slapping the “AI” moniker on anything and everything they made.

Intel (full disclosure, I worked for them from 1989 to 2016) had an interesting demo showing a prototype of their latest Movidius AI chip being used to spot poachers in the bush, presumably to then alert rangers and police.

By contrast, many of the major TV vendors were showing “AI sound” and “AI vision” that claimed to use artificial intelligence to improve the audio and video experience on their TV sets. While the demos looked and sounded OK, I came away with the distinct impression that their marketing departments had been working overdrive and stretching the truth on the “AI” part.

Artificial intelligence is a big deal. It will reshape every industry in the coming years, and change the way we all live our lives. By using AI as a marketing gimmick in this way, brands run the risk of losing their ability to explain AI’s true value to consumers once they have found more meaningful applications for it.

Drones, drones everywhere!

The Walkera Zhun fire-fighting drone in action (in what looks like a simulated shot…)

The Walkera Zhun fire-fighting drone in action (in what looks like a simulated shot…)

I saw more drones at CES this year than I’ve seen in prior years. And for the first time, the majority were not just flying cameras. Many of these drones were designed to do serious work. There were drones for agricultural work (spraying, seeding, and monitoring), crowd control, rescue, and fire-fighting. The fire-fighting drone from Walkera is designed to deliver a quick response to fires in high-rise buildings. As well as being able to spray fire-retardant powder, the drone can also launch a fire-extinguishing projectile that crashes through a window and explodes to extinguish a fire.

There were a lot more underwater drones at CES this year too. These drones were designed for underwater photography, conservation efforts, salvage, inspection, search, water quality assessment, and scientific research.

The RoboSea Robo-Shark, designed for surveillance

The RoboSea Robo-Shark, designed for surveillance

The Robo-Shark from Robosea, shown in my photo here, swims autonomously, can travel at up to 10 knots, and is designed for stealth applications like sneaking up on illegal fishermen.

Some drones were designed specifically as fishing aids, complete with waypoint mapping and a sonar fish-finder. For the divers and snorkelers amongst you, I also saw quite a number of underwater scooters, including from companies like Robosea and Trident.

Perhaps the most impressive drone at the show was from Bell Flight (formerly Bell Helicopter). Bell’s Nexus drone was a BEAST. The photo I snapped shows its scale against the backdrop of the CES crowds. Designed to carry four passengers and a pilot, this hybrid-electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) vehicle is huge. Ultimately, it’s designed to fly autonomously (once regulations allow for that) in which case the Nexus will be able to carry a full five passengers.

Sound like yet another toy for the elite that’s out of reach of the common person? Think again. Uber has ambitious plans for an autonomous air taxi service under the brand Uber Elevate. They are projecting that 15-minute flights could be as little as $60. Still pricier than ground-based Uber ride, but remember…during rush hour you can get a lot further in 15 minutes by air than you can by road.

The Bell Nexus. A sight to behold.

The Bell Nexus. A sight to behold.

Autonomous mobility prototypes are looking more real

Companies like Mercedes, Bosch, Denso, Continental, and Yamaha were showing off impressive-looking prototypes of their autonomous people carriers. Able to carry typically 4-12 people, these autonomous vehicles all emphasized comfort, big windows, and in-transit displays to provide information related to the journey, host video conferences, or show movies. Some came with a cloud-based component to handle fleet management, mapping, parking services, security, analytics, maintenance, and so on.

As well as carrying people, these devices are also designed to double as autonomous delivery services. As well as smaller, sidewalk-bound robots from Robby, Amazon, and others, Robomart (first photo in this blog) showed a road-based mobile grocery store. Kroger is now in full customer trials with their autonomous delivery vehicle, built in partnership with Nuro. Autonomous delivery will soon be deployed everywhere, much like the electric scooters that suddenly appeared in our cities. The question is…will people be ok sharing the sidewalks with robots delivering pizza to lazy people, or will they rebel. Early data from Starship Technologies, another autonomous delivery company, would indicate that frustration is already high. Sensors in the vehicles indicates the regularity with which pedestrians kick the robots. It’s a lot.

Continental combined the people carrier idea, and delivery bots for their CES demo, which was probably one of the most photographed demos of CES: Their CuBE autonomous vehicle used as a delivery van, complete with a robot delivery dog inside it. I captured a video of the demo, shown below. The robot still moves pretty slowly, but that’s where the tech is today.

Continental's demo at CES 2019 of a robot dog delivering a package by clambering over a discarded scooter, climbing steps to a porch, and ringing the doorbell.

So what can we learn from CES this year? What were the big takeaways from attending the show and looking at the bazillion tech exhibits through the eyes of a futurist? In no particular order:

  • Augmented reality still isn’t ready for prime time, and may not be for another year or two, at least. Efforts from companies like nReal and Vuzix are incrementally better than what we have seen before, but still remind me of late edition Palm Pilots in the final years before the iPhone launched and ate their lunch. The deployment of 5G base stations and edge computing may tip the balance on this one in the 2020-2021 timeframe, but until then…we wait.

  • Google and Alexa have clearly won the voice agent race, at least outside China (where Alibaba is king). One technology or the other was embedded in almost every product at the show. “Hey Google, wash my underpants!” Microsoft has famously given up on trying to get Cortana built in to third party electronics and is instead pursuing a new partnership strategy. So, Google Assistant and Alexa are to be the iOS and Androids of the voice world. And Google looks to be way out in front again, claiming to be in around a billion devices. Most of those, of course, are Android smartphones. When it comes to non-phone devices, it’s still anybody’s game (well, between Amazon and Google).

  • I came away with the clear impression that fundamentally technologists have pegged humanity as being lazy, antisocial, and afraid. There were some pieces of technology that were designed to offer new ways to connect with other human beings (Intel’s holographic collaboration demo in partnership with Magic Leap), but most of the technology seemed to be designed to allow humans to spend more time on their sofas, watching more TV. Or more time in their (autonomous) car, watching TV. Or more time at the beach, watching TV. Of course, it’s the Consumer Electronics Show, which sees the world as revolving around a TV, but still. The vision seems to be broadening: You, at the center of your home cocoon, bathed in the flickering display of a screen, or entombed inside VR, protected by smart security cameras (everywhere at CES) and served by delivery robots, voice agents, and a connected kitchen that limits the need to get up and do anything else.

There was a distinct lack of imagination at this year’s CES. Brands like GoPro were encouraging people to go outside and experience life more fully (and record it so that their friends can watch it later on TV), but there didn’t seem to be many creative visions for how technology might help us to interact with the world, and with each other, in more meaningful ways. After the Pokemon Go craze got people off their couches and into the wild, at least for a while, it seems the tech world is happier to have us retreat to our bunkers and consume.

I suppose that’s why they call it the consumer electronics show.

Steve Brown4 Comments