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Asad's CES takeaway: The only thing big tech is trying to sustain is itself

by Asad Hamir

The CES circus rolled into town for another year and…..I was left wanting. After all, this is the biggest electronics show in the world, yet from my eyes dealt with nothing meaningful that keeps real people up at night, such as privacy and living more sustainably.

Tech has already changed the very fabric of our society, with algorithms, IoT, 5G, sensors, wearables & tech proliferation in every aspect of our lives. Make no mistake, the tech giants are now running (and some might argue, ruining) our lives.

So, doesn’t great power come with great responsibility? Shouldn’t tech be more human in the future? Shouldn’t we go back to the principles it was founded on, to help connect us and work in our interests? Not in the interests of the Silicon Valley billionaires anyway….

With the environmental challenges that face us over the next 10 years, the tech industry needs to chip in and do its bit. It seems like, with the exception of Apple, in many areas it is simply not interested. It behaves like it is immune from the environmental challenges despite e-waste being the fastest growing toxic waste category in the world.

Below, I’ve rounded up and given my take on some of the standout themes from this year’s CES, from Neon’s controversial new “digital species”, to Mercedes’ AVTR concept car which was the definition of EXTRA.

What does this year’s show tell us about the state of the tech world? Is Silicon Valley out of ideas or does its widely recognised lack of diversity mean they are out of touch with reality? I’ll leave you to make up your mind, or maybe you can ask Alexa...

A new way to travel

Photo: mercedes-benz.com/

Whilst very much a concept car for the distant future, the Mercedes AVTR was all sorts of WOW. It gave us an insight into a more sustainable and carbon neutral automotive outlook, where nature, human and machine intersect. Made from sustainable materials such as recycled PET plastic bottles and using organic battery technology, it redefines the in-car experience and sets new boundaries for car design. While other brands at CES seemed to focus on replacing humans with machines, Mercedes presented a symbiotic organism where they become one. A truly inspiring next generation car design - oh and it looks pretty damn cool as well.

Also taking steps towards more sustainable methods of travel, Uber teamed up with Hyundai with the promise they can free you from the morning gridlock via the skies. Their electronic air taxis are effectively drones that will eventually fly you about the city skies autonomously (I’m not sure if the emergency parachute system is a comforting idea or not!?). Each taxi will have a range of 60 miles, top speed of 200 mph, a cruising altitude of 1-2,000 ft. and take a mere 5-7 minutes to recharge. They’ll seat 4 people plus a pilot. The emerging technology behind all this is eVTOL, which stands for “electric vertical takeoff and landing”. Whether Uber can make its fleet of flying cars affordable and accessible is the real question mark.

The future is folded

Photo: news.lenovo.com

Ready or not, folding screens are about to become as ubiquitous as “text neck.” Though apparently your ability to multi-task will be all the better for it.

As a hardware manufacturer at CES 2020, it seemed like if you weren’t showcasing a foldable screen, what on earth were you even doing there? After some fair attempts at nailing the technology by the likes of Samsung, Huawei and Microsoft in 2019, the folding screen is finally ready to go mainstream. Lenovo launched its ThinkPad X1 Fold, and Dell and TCL also jumped on the bendy bandwagon.

It’s still expensive technology though, but we’re confident the prices will drop over time when it becomes more commonplace. The big brands are selling it on multi-screen capabilities and multi-tasking. I’m not so sure about this, but I do see the use case of the smartphone becoming a phablet, or a phablet becoming a laptop.

AI wars

I don’t know about you but Google Assistant’s new feature, where you can tell it to forget unintended conversations, just makes me wonder WTF they’ve been doing with our private conversations up until now!

That was just one of several new features for its Smart Assistant, the product that Google focused on almost entirely at CES. The real standout feature they demonstrated was new advanced speech technology and its ability to interpret language. I witnessed this first-hand when a friend who was with me spoke in Urdu to the American Google Employee. We were astounded at the accuracy of the AI, even when my friend amped up his Urdu accent. Assistant is being incorporated into swathes of product, from overpriced water filters to fingerprint controlled door locks, as Google goes head to head with Amazon to win the “Voice Wars.”

May the best AI win.

Smart Tech Everywhere

Photo: news.samsung.com

CES has been known for its strange applications of Smart Tech and this year didn’t disappoint. Pretty much everything you can dream up is turning smart - from smart bins, robots that bring toilet roll to you, to smart nappies should you want to feed your paranoia about how much your child is peeing or sleeping. There’s no denying there’s a place for smart products like the brilliant August Smart Lock by Yves Behar, but where do we draw the line? Do we really need all this smart stuff and how much are we compromising our data, or potentially our children’s data, to get it?

Samsung appeared to signal the age of the “droids” inside our homes with Ballie - something akin to a BB8 rolling around the house that is designed to react to your needs, act as a security device and monitor the environment. It can even be linked to Samsung’s Smart home products such as their vacuum cleaner or air purifier.

I for one will be sticking to hoovering my own home thanks, at least until we know where all our data (which is surely being collected by these devices) is going, or what it’s being used for.

The rise of the artificial human race

Photo: wired.co.uk

The biggest head spinner at CES that seemed like the prelude to a particularly disturbing episode of Black Mirror, was the unveiling of Neon. A Samsung project by Samsung labs, its realistic human avatars gave quite a scary glimpse into the future where “neons” will become your teachers, doctors, financial analysts and potentially your best friends. The CEO of the startup envisages the beginnings of a new race of digital species, although his technology is still a long way off. There is no ability for the Avatar to think, to have memory or any AI yet, but is this only a matter of time?

The project threw up a lot of questions about AI ethics and regulation. Is it right that a company like Neon can spring up from nowhere with such a radical point of view, and almost unlimited funds backed by Samsung, without anyone being able to question the ethics or implications of what they are doing? Are digital beings the future, and crucially, do we want that future?

What sustainability focus?

Photo: hydraloop.com/

In light of Australia’s devastating wildfires and the general prognosis for our global climate, I would have expected the tech giants to have sustainability at the top of their agendas. Yet, there was very little to get excited about at CES.

The innovative ideas came from startups like Hydraloop by a Dutch company, which recycles 85% of domestic water so it can be used for toilet flushing, the washing machine, the garden or the pool. The other was from Israeli startup Genny, which takes moisture from air and converts it into 8 gallons of drinking water per day. Priced at $5-8k however, this is an expensive alternative for a company or home looking to replace a water fountain and bottled water.

At next year’s show, it would be great to see the big tech companies tackling e-waste - the most toxic of waste products - and leading the charge with a more sustainable approach for the whole industry to follow.

My advice to the tech giants: do better.

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