It wasn’t quite Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) had plenty of drones, robots and autonomous vehicles. An annual must-do event on any techie’s calendar, CES is an exhausting and exhilarating walk through the future of consumer technology.

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Test Drive

A Test Drive Through the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show

It wasn’t quite Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) had plenty of drones, robots and autonomous vehicles. An annual must-do event on any techie’s calendar, CES is an exhausting and exhilarating walk through the future of consumer technology.

We have been regular attendees for about a decade now, and each year the show gets bigger, more audacious and more impossible to completely take in. This year was not a disappointment except for the occasional onset of claustrophobia resulting from the crush of a record attendance and, of course, the infamous power failure that threw more than half of the Las Vegas Convention Center into total darkness for two hours. Other than that, we had a blast.

So what was hot at CES this year? Artificial intelligence (AI). Of course, AI gets tagged to a lot of gadgets nowadays whether the underlying technology is classic AI or not. For example, Amazon’s incredibly popular Echo voice-activated speaker features Alexa, which is called an artificially intelligent voice assistant. And Alexa was indeed all over the place in Vegas. It seems that Amazon has raced to the top — its Alexa system is integrated into consumer products such as refrigerators, lamps, cars, bicycle helmets, lawn equipment and even toilets.

No doubt rival Google has taken note of the explosive growth of the Alexa ecosystem. Google was promoting its alternative voice AI, Google Assistant (found on Android phones and Google’s Home smart speaker), with prominent signage on everything from billboards to monorail wraps to huge banners in the convention center and nearby hotels. It seems that Google wants to be the premier embedded voice assistant for everyday consumer products. We say let Google and Amazon fight it out for voice assistant supremacy. The competition can only mean better products for the consumer. In our opinion, the biggest losers in the voice assistant wars are Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

THE ROBOTS REALLY ARE COMING

We also saw big growth in the presence of robotics at CES. Don’t worry — we didn't see any as good-looking as us (now that is a low bar) nor any that we felt were a threat to our jobs. But make no mistake — robots are in our future. We saw robots as butlers, cleaners, elder caregivers, babysitters, pets, ping-pong players, factory workers, builders and even laundry folders. Advances in robotic technology coupled with the aforementioned AI make robots increasingly viable for routine jobs including food service, basic customer service, goods delivery, and companionship and some level of oversight for children and the elderly.

The most encouraging gadgets we saw at CES were products promoting health and wellness as well as providing new opportunities to overcome disabilities.

Perhaps the biggest societal disruption that is just around the corner is the continued advancement of autonomous vehicle technology. As in previous years, CES continued to showcase autonomous vehicles from the big automobile manufacturers. Many of these models are used primarily for riding, meeting or socializing — not driving.

Imagine a car’s interior tricked out like a small conference room, complete with side windows that double as interactive touchscreen monitors. You simply ride down the road oblivious to the car’s route, as it is guided by an embedded autonomous driving system. Now, if you still get your kicks by actually navigating your own transportation, there were plenty of rideables at CES: electric skateboards and scooters, new form factor Segways and smart bicycles. Who knows? When our cities’ roads get clogged with self-driving cars, an electric scooter may be the smartest mode of transport in town.

HEALTH TECH IS BOOMING

We could go on and on about the thousands of gadgets, accessories, software apps and just purely weird stuff we saw at CES. However, probably the most encouraging gadgets we saw at CES were products promoting health and wellness as well as providing new opportunities to overcome disabilities.

In the health and fitness hall, we saw a lot of tech that will make us smarter and healthier, including a tiny UV sensor made by L'Oréal that can be worn on your fingernail, a high-tech sleep mask, smart toothbrushes and a robotic pillow. There were also numerous accessibility gadgets, including smart hearing aids, smartphones for the blind, apps to assist caregivers for the elderly, smart shoes with GPS sensors and even a device that can translate sign language to spoken English. It’s not lost on the electronics industry that hordes of Baby Boomers are retiring every year and are looking to technology to help them stay healthy and active for many years to come.

If we can look forward to having AI robots take care of us, self-driving cars take us places and drones deliver food, medicine and other necessities to our retirement home on the beach, our future senior years don’t look so bad. Bring on the tech.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

William Ramsey, Partner at Neal & Harwell, and LogicForce Consulting President Phil Hampton are best known for The Bill and Phil Show.

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