Walking the many stalls of the CES floor over the years has often felt like visiting a bountiful farmer’s market for nerds. But rather than feeling like a sequel of the campy eighties film, “Revenge of the Nerds,” this year’s CES felt much more like the dark eve before “Blade Runner.” With robots of all sizes and shapes flying, rolling, or walking about the hallways of CES trying to get your attention, and with Chinese characters displayed everywhere I could almost hear a Hans Zimmer soundtrack playing in the background.
What was most evident to me was all the completely “invisible” advances in technology that were pervasive at CES and driven entirely by Big Tech. For behind every blinking light or whirring motor in a network of wires and chips are the deepening relationships with the cloud that powers the new revolution. We have to be aware that the entire world is innovating in this fourth industrial revolution and if you don’t embrace the cloud, parts of the world will easily fall behind and get disrupted.
Only by truly grasping what Big Tech is doing behind the scenes can individuals, and established businesses as well, manage to navigate the changes that are already afoot. And in the process, they have the opportunity, and ultimate responsibility, to actively counteract the horrendous imbalance between humanity and technology. Big Tech’s “unfair advantages” was made metaphorically evident with many Las Vegas monorail train cars wrapped in Google branding that zoomed high above conventional cars stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
AI & Machine Learning
We’re in a place where the next generation of technology, AI, is happening and everyone is talking about it. It was hard to find a part of CES that did not promote something related to AI. Most vehicle technologies on display promised the innovation of AI without discerning what it’s really going to improve besides taking the steering wheel away from you. It’s similar to when blockchain emerged as the solution for all financial transaction issues but no one knew what it actually did at the time.
However, while it’s use cases may not always be clear, AI is something that will inevitably infiltrate and impact our daily lives. We’re in the fourth industrial revolution where computers are interconnected, they’re on our bodies, in our cars, in our homes, and AI is going to happen because the data already exists to make it happen. The new AI feeds on data — our data — and in the process it gets as smart, or as dumb, as what we write on the Internet, how we drive our cars, or cook our meals in a smart oven. Hopefully it’s only listening to us when we’re not angry, unkind, or had a few too many beers, but right now it’s taking in and using everything that we give it.
So we have to get ready for what that means. The challenge now is for us to accept that AI is an inevitability and it’s going to happen, and we should prepare for it by looking back in history, if you look at the first industrial revolution with the steam engine it seemed impossible and was rejected in favor of the older model, aka a horse. Then you have electricity, “No I don’t need electricity — my candle works fine. Thank you very much!.” Look what happened. “I don’t need a personal computer — I’ve now got one taking up my entire desk at the office.” Look what happened.
We’ll need to keep watch on what the successful use cases for AI will be, and be critical for its failures too. On the one hand AI can automatically generate more entries in Wikipedia to positively address the gender imbalance of entries for scientists, and on the other hand AI can automate imbalances embedded in court sentencing patterns in the US that disadvantage the underprivileged. It’s all too easy for AI to do something wrong over and over repeatedly and interminably; it can also do good over and over repeatedly and interminably. So ongoing human judgement needs to be put into play over and over repeatedly and interminably — but unlike the cloud, we humans need to take a break. That’s a problem.
We also need to figure out what AI is going to have a hard time mastering — like anything to do with human, handmade sensibilities. We really shouldn’t waste time on tasks that AI is good at doing. I’d like to imagine more human pursuits versus pure machine pursuits and for us to pinpoint what AI excels at versus what we are good at, and build our relationship with AIs that way. We need to develop a positive relationship with them, because fear isn’t a driver for curiosity and creativity. The AI overlords are definitely coming, but maybe we can become friends rather than enemies.
Samsung was a massive presence at CES and there was a lot of buzz around their latest foray into life-sized AIs that are almost indiscernible from real humans. But I think it’s important to remember that Samsung did not always control the tech world. Only a couple of decades ago, Sony was the champion of making technomagic happen with its own “old AI” robotic dog, Aibo. Aibo reminded me how Samsung’s new companion robot Bally draws upon Asian sensibilities around robotics that differ from the rest of the world. Whether it’s anime culture or religious differences; robots are accepted in Asia, and I’m optimistic about the robotic culture there — especially for elder care, mental and physical care. I was lucky in my younger life to work with AARP (an organization in the US that advocates for people who are 50+) in my thirties, and I was able to learn what was coming in my own future — and it became very clear to me how my mentality of older versus younger was off. Robotic assistant technology will become a big deal as the number of older people becomes the same as the number of younger people — which will result in a shortage of caregivers for the elderly. We’ll all need to turn to robots then.
I love VR because in the technology research community we have long been waiting for VR and AR to arrive since the 1960s. It’s always worked, but it’s been difficult to get it to both work well enough and cheaply enough, and to ultimately “look normal” for you to wear a computer on your face. At this year’s CES there was incredible diversity of VR and AR hardware on display — which reminded me of the early days of the microcomputer when companies like Apple were just one of many players. There are so many “computers-on-face” experiments out there we can only imagine there is a strong likelihood for more. But the general use case for VR and AR is not yet fully established. Is it for gaming? Is it for training? We don’t know. But I’m much more curious about how the technology can immediately get used for older people.
For example, my 83-year-old mother was able to travel to NYC recently. She’s traveled to many parts of the world, but never made it to Times Square in her life, and she always wanted to see it. While visiting her I luckily had my Oculus Quest with me, and when she put it on and got to see Times Square I found it hard to get my Quest back from her. The onboarding experience for Quest gives me professional confidence that we’re in an absolutely new era for design and VR. But with evidence more close to home by watching my mom fully embrace VR, my conviction is even stronger. And yes I managed to leave with my Quest.
Innovation = Collaboration
The strength of tech innovations coming from Chinese companies was my key takeaway from this year’s CES. By being a highly unregulated innovation ecosystem, the advances being made in China struck me as unconventional, scary, and exciting. I began wondering if hundreds of years ago this was a sentiment felt by Europeans towards the emerging “startup” country that eventually became the “United States of America.” There’s so many concerns for the future of AI that we need to keep in mind — and thus government regulation in N America and Europe will be undeniably important as we speed towards the future. At the same time, we need to be sure that innovation doesn’t get stifled to the point where the early advantages enjoyed by the inventors of the microchip, networking, software, and ultimately the cloud become completely lost to the Chinese.
I’ve noticed over the last few months how Chinese tech companies are actively participating in open source: the practice of sharing computer codes openly. There’s also a healthy amount of exchange in the UX (User Experience) space where non-Chinese designers are learning tons from how Chinese designers are leveraging AI and automation. All good innovators know that new ideas come from diversity, sharing, and appreciating differences. The best Chinese innovators know this well — and I’m hopeful that our best regulators out there know this too.
Collaboration with AIs is the key to the future of better consumer products just as much as collaborating across countries is vital to ensuring that human beings will not get left behind. And perhaps one day, the UN convenes at the CES with humanity presiding right alongside the AIs. Hopefully there isn’t a Hans Zimmer soundtrack playing in the background when all the sessions open.