CES 2019: Looking to the Future
Lane Long posted on January 16, 2019 |
The Las Vegas event delivered surprises in every tech sector, but AI in its many forms stole the show.
The Las Vegas event delivered surprises in every tech sector, but AI in its many forms stole the show.
Last week, Las Vegas played host to the latest iteration of the most influential event in the tech world. CES, formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show, has served for 50 years as the arena in which brands from all sectors have preferred to debut the latest-and-greatest in technological innovation.

This commercial diversity was on full display last week. Product rollouts from over 4,500 companies spanning nearly every industry imaginable provided a first look at many of the developments that will define life in the coming year and beyond.

This year’s show truly drove home the popularly cited notion that, in 2019, every company is a technology company.

The new products released this year, at CES or elsewhere, will be designed to address millions of applications. New tools will be built to serve every industry. In addition to their end uses, these advancements will be characterized by a virtually infinite spectrum of variables. For all the range and breadth of the gadgetry presented at CES 2019, however, a few unifying themes stood out with notable clarity.

Certain technologies exhibited in Las Vegas last week transcend the details of market segment, user profile, or even geography. They will be revolutionary in the way that airplanes, televisions, and smartphones have been revolutionary in their times. These are not so much consumer products as they are consumer enablers.

Believe it or not, this isn’t a lead-up to a discussion of burgers. What truly stole the show at CES were innovations that will change the way everyone lives and works: artificial intelligence and autonomous/electric vehicle technology. Here’s a quick summary of some specific developments in these spaces that went on display in Las Vegas.

AI: Beyond the Data Center

Much of the buzz surrounding AI in 2018 centered on its utility—both current and potential—in enterprise applications. For all the real and imagined benefits AI can bring to business, however, CES was a wake-up call for anyone sleeping on its usefulness to individuals in their daily lives. This smart-everything connectivity manifested itself in more ways than one at CES, some of which were more familiar than others.

The most widespread permutation of AI in the personal lives of most, remains—naturally—controlled by Amazon and Google. Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa are bringing voice control to more facets of life than ever, and underpinning the effectiveness of these platforms are AI and machine learning. By gathering information (lots of it—exposure to these tools can be constant) and using increasingly sophisticated algorithms to tailor predictive suggestions to observed human behavior, these tools are intended to make life simpler, easier, and safer.

Amazon recently announced that 100 million Alexa-enabled devices have been sold. That’s a pretty clear indicator that this particular representation of AI has already gone mainstream.

Google and Amazon have a good grip on the leading consumer-facing AI platforms in the world. (Image credit: Getty Images.)
Google and Amazon have a good grip on the leading consumer-facing AI platforms in the world. (Image credit: Getty Images.)
At CES, the larger narrative about AI’s growing role in our daily lives was driven home by an overwhelming array of specific examples. Many of the most immediately useful (and impressive) product releases at CES involved integrating these virtual helpers into previously disconnected, “dumb” every-day implements. AI, through voice connectivity, is helping bring the Internet of Things (IoT) to maturity and maximizing the value derived from connecting various aspects of life.

Vanity or Productivity? Or Both?

Take the Google Assistant-optimized smart mirror from Capstone Connected Home. The mirror—with which most of us spend at least a few minutes every morning—is perhaps the least obvious candidate for AI enablement of any object common to 21st century homes. It offers and requires no adjustment or manipulation, doesn’t become more or less useful with adjustment, and is entirely stationary.

Capstone’s vision for its AI-equipped mirror, however, involves taking advantage of those very same characteristics to unlock value.

Capstone is bringing AI-enabled voice technology to a highly visible product. (Image credit: CNET.)
Capstone is bringing AI-enabled voice technology to a highly visible product. (Image credit: CNET.)
Equipped with a touchscreen that Capstone expects will help people make more productive use of their time getting ready, the mirror can be used in the same way as any other voice assistant. However, the Capstone mirror also doubles as a communication device in the same vein of a smartphone or laptop. Users can toggle between various Google accounts, stream videos, send messages, and set meetings—all while brushing their teeth.

What’s most important about the mirror, though, is the larger trend it exemplifies: an ever-increasing number of access points to our artificially intelligent assistants, and a diminishing likelihood of being disconnected at any point during the day.

What is Sleeping Like a Baby, Anyway?

Another area of life in which AI could be coming to save the day? Parenthood.

Among the buzziest of all rollouts delivered at CES was the Nanit, a highly intelligent baby monitor that could help new parents understand their child’s sleep patterns like never before. An integrated sensor system featuring two-way audio and a smart camera collects relevant data about babies while they sleep. Nanit’s algorithms synthesize this information to put together a complete picture of when, why, and how babies are actually sleeping.

As the AI platform collects more data about a baby’s sleep patterns over time, it juxtaposes them against healthy averages to let parents know if certain changes should be implemented.

Is it becoming too cold in the crib at some point during the night, potentially disrupting sleep? Is the average length of a sleep session lengthening over time, or trending in the wrong direction? Insights like these have been inaccessible to parents, even on topics as valuable and sensitive as the health of their child. Now, the marriage of AI and the IoT has delivered a solution.

The Nanit “smart” baby monitoring system. Video courtesy of Nanit.
The list of individual products equipped with voice-activated, robotic “helpers” swelled to new lengths at CES, but such specifics may miss the larger point. Connectivity on an individual level with an intelligent network of devices that learn and improve as we use them is becoming more widespread by the day. This personal AI revolution as a central theme of CES shouldn’t be regarded as coincidental. It also shouldn’t be written off as a fad of dubious practicality and staying power. The truth is that, as powerful AI takes ever more creative and useful shapes, the personal IoT infrastructure demonstrated at this year’s show will become an expected feature of daily life.

The Future of Transportation

Other forms of AI are building—indirectly—towards a future in which humans are not responsible for their own transportation. CES this year, as in the recent past, brought a host of industry heavyweights to the table to demonstrate and discuss the progress they are making on toward a driverless future.

In 2019, a discussion of autonomous and electric vehicles within a summary of important tech releases may feel almost obligatory. That doesn’t make it any less important or relevant to daily life. Context aside, CES was an important event for transportation’s future, both for what it was and for what it was not.

Given the splashy car-related releases of the past few years’ events, 2019 was fairly quiet on the vehicle front. Still, given the massive environmental, cultural, and economic stakes at play in the development of autonomous, clean-energy driving solutions, the developments that were shown off were significant.

On the clean-energy front, Kenworth demonstrated its new prototype for a class 8, electric semi tractor. In partnership with Toyota, Kenworth is designing the trucks for drayage use in California over the coming year. The technology that powers them could have important potential for reducing the impact of short-haul trucking on the environment.

Twin Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell stacks and a 12-kilowatt-hour battery pack give the trucks enough juice to travel up to 300 miles. They can be fully fueled with compressed hydrogen in under 30 minutes and represent a true zero-emission transportation solution, albeit on a very limited scale. Drivers in early testing have cited low noise, smoothness, and solid driving performance as appealing features.

The impact of EVs on the trucking industry is much less discussed (and likely less developed) than the passenger landscape, but is no less economically and environmentally important. The Kenworth/Toyota venture is a concrete step towards testing and developing a long-term, zero-emission alternative to diesel for shipping.

Realistic Limitations and Expectations

In terms of the continued development of autonomous transportation solutions, CES 2019 was notable for its realism. Practicality and transparency are both difficult and necessary to bring to discussions about technologies as young and exciting as AVs.

To their credit, however, Aptiv (in conjunction with Lyft), injected a dose of honesty into the conversation by actually giving the public access to their self-driving cars. In these “robotaxis,” there was one constant: a human driver.

Aptiv and Lyft teamed up to provide a realistic look at what “driverless” cars are actually capable of at present. (Image credit: Shahin Farshchi, Forbes.com.)
Aptiv and Lyft teamed up to provide a realistic look at what “driverless” cars are actually capable of at present. (Image credit: Shahin Farshchi, Forbes.com.)
As remains the case with most autonomous systems today, the bulk of the tricky functions involved with driving remain outside the grasp of the car itself. Humans were necessary to navigate in and out of busy parking lots and heavy traffic, even in Aptiv’s well-developed model.

Granting increased public access to the real systems behind the excitement surrounding self-driving cars is a clear positive. The sooner we become comfortable with the notion (repeated by industry leaders for years) that level 4 and 5 autonomy remain many years from widespread adoption, the sooner we will come to appreciate self-driving technology for what it is. CES 2019 was a referendum on how exciting the world of clean, autonomous transportation is—and how much work remains to be done.

A Simpler, Safer, More Productive World

The promise of CES this year did not come in the form of heretofore unseen and unheard of technologies. AI, in the personal IoT space or in driverless cars, is not a nascent tool. Rather, CES brought new clarity to the fact that these advances are the tech story of our time. They will take development over years and decades to reach maturity, and 2019 will be another stepping stone.

As ever-improving products with better AI go online, the pace of progress will accelerate. A world in which we rely on communication with a mechanized intelligence to make life smoother and easier and hand over the responsibility for transporting ourselves and our things is no longer a speck on the distant horizon; it’s coming into focus. CES demonstrated that while we are still in the early stages of understanding what increasingly smart machines will mean for our world, the potential has never looked higher.

Curious what else launched at CES last week?  Check out our tech round-ups!

Transformative Technology at CES 2019

CES 2019 Round-Up: Artificial Intelligence

CES 2019 Roundup: Autonomous Vehicle Tech

CES 2019 Roundup: Wearables and Personal Devices

CES 2019 Roundup: Robotics for the Home and Consumer

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