In Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 blockbuster, Pacific Rim, the visionary director foresaw the year 2020 as a high-stakes battle between technology and mankind, with soldiers piloting flying mechas in an attempt to defeat skyscraper-sized robots threatening to destroy humanity. Now that the decade has turned, del Toro’s vision of flying cars and robot villains hasn’t been fully realized — but we’re closer.
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At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week, French researchers at Pollen Robotics unveiled an ominous-looking robot torso, while the aerospace and tech company, Bell, unveiled a flying “air taxi” that promised to shuttle everything from passengers to organs. Closer to the ground, even Lyft got in on the action, with self-driving BMWs taking attendees to and from the strip.
For all the talk about “disrupting the industry” though, this year’s crop of products at the Consumers Electronics Show was relatively muted, at least in terms of new offerings. The much-hyped debut of “sex tech” elicited more groans than moans, with the dozen or so participating companies tucked into a quiet corner of the Sands Expo, far from the main action at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
While CES opened the conference up to sexual health and wellness brands for the first time this year, exhibitors were politely told to keep their booths PG-13, with strict rules forbidding the display of “anatomically correct” devices, and preventing the use of “humans, robots, mannequins [or] dolls” to demonstrate any of the products. That led to some creative — if cliché — marketing (“Come as you are” was a popular pun) and also limited the types of actual “sex tech” on display (basically just an assortment of plugs and vibrators).
And while cannabis continues to be one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, smoking devices and tobacco technology is still forbidden at the show. That didn’t stop attendees from making a stop to MedMen in weed-friendly Vegas and lighting up or toking outside the convention center doors. Whether CES organizers will open up the floor for cannabis companies next year remains to be seen, but certainly, interest is high… no pun intended.
As for what was actually on view at CES, companies from Samsung to Toyota all showcased their vision for “connectivity,” with new products that promise to bring people — and entire cities — closer together.
Toyota, who will roll out a fleet of autonomous buses to transport visitors to this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, debuted an ambitious new plan to create a “Woven City” at the base of Mount Fuji. The prototype city will be made up of research labs, housing, and community centers run on a connected network focused on accessibility and efficiency (think: hydrogen fuel cells, self-driving cars, and robots). The goal: To test new technologies in an inspired setting and eventual replicate the “Woven City” model around the world.
Bell, the Texas-based company known for their developments in aviation, showcased its Nexus 4EX “air taxi,” a sort of helicopter-private jet contraption that can transport up to five passengers and take-off and land from virtually any space, thanks to Bell’s “vertical lift” technology. The all-electric aircraft gets up to 60 miles per charge (a hybrid version is also pending), and Bell’s VP of Innovation says the ultimate goal is not just about transport, but about creating both digital and physical links.
“We’re not just building a vehicle,” explains Scott Drennan, “but also the physical infrastructure on the ground and digital infrastructure that’s all around us.
“More importantly though,” he adds, “I want us to create visible connectiveness with people. Now we can bring people physically together in a better way — grandparents can see their grandkids, buddies that live across town can meet up — there are a million other things we could be doing other than sitting in traffic.”
For some companies, the idea of “connectivity” in 2020 remains unclear. How are we expected to communicate with each other more when technology is making it increasingly easier for us to be independent? Samsung Electronics’ CEO, Hyun-Suk Kim, delivered the opening night keynote at CES and spoke about the need for more “human-centered” interactions. Moments later, however, he unveiled the “Ballie” — literally a spinning ball that rolls around to “talk” to you, BB-8-style.
If we want to build community, are robot companions really the best way to do it? (And if we’re really going there, I much preferred Tombot’s robotic emotional support puppy that was introduced to audible “oohs” and “ahhs”).
The rise of more “connected” products also sparked new discussions this week about privacy, with companies rolling out everything from blockchain phones to a “hack-proof” smart home security camera, that seems like it’s just daring people to try breaking in with a description like that. Further proof of the (profitable) privacy problem: While Apple didn’t have a booth at CES, it did send Jane Horvath, the company’s Director of Global Privacy, to take part in a privacy roundtable.
The consensus at the conference was clear: the potential exposure of our sensitive information is no longer an unfounded fear, but rather a very real concern. The online security firm, Norton, reported more than 3,800 data breaches in 2019 — and these were just the ones that were publicly disclosed. In total, Norton says those breaches left more than 4.1 billion records exposed.
So where does that leave us, in this increasingly connected world? And what are the true costs of convenience? Having a camera to monitor your comings and goings may give you peace of mind when it comes to protecting your home (and your loved ones), but who else could be seeing that footage? And what about the paradox of purchasing anti-hacking software, only to be giving those same companies your personal information in the process?
From this perspective, convenience and connectivity can be great, but it can also be plain annoying. A number of companies unveiled their latest “smart fridge” models at CES this week, with the refrigerators able to suggest grocery lists and healthy recipes based on what you have stored inside. But at what point will our fridges physically start locking us out of our freezers, to prevent us from reaching for that last pint of ice cream?
The answer it seems, is a lot like your diet. When it comes to picking and choosing from the latest gear and gadgets, it’s all about balance. Some things will exponentially benefit your life, while others may just end up as a nuisance. The key is knowing when to pull the plug — literally — on technology. And maybe skip the Bot Chef and actually get your friends together to cook your own dinner tonight.
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