Saturday, February 17, 2018

Reflecting on CES 2018

In early January, I made my annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). A couple days before the official opening of the largest tech expo in the world, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) puts on an event called CES Unveiled to provide a small taste of what attendees can expect to see at CES. As I walked into the hotel ballroom for CES Unveiled this year I saw a photographer taking a photo of the CEO and president of CTA, Gary Shapiro, who commutes from his home in Franklin, Michigan to the CTA offices in D.C. Shapiro jumped off the ground as high as he could as the photographer managed to catch him many feet off the ground in mid-air.

That photo was appropriate because it summed up Shapiro’s excitement for the 51st CES – the largest show in CTA’s history. Trying to put into words everything I saw and experienced at this year’s CES is an impossible task. The most common question I receive after I return each year from CES is: What was the most impressive new technology there. That is no simple question because wherever you turn, there are impressive tech innovations that will revolutionize our world.

The show has grown over the years and now seems to take over the entire Vegas strip. More than 3,900 exhibitors showcased world-changing technologies that spanned more than 2.75 million net square feet of exhibit space across Las Vegas. Shapiro’s excitement for CES was shared around the world as there were close to a million tweets about CES 2018 on Twitter. This year’s CES will be remembered as the year when a blackout shut down large parts of CES for over an hour, but overall this was a minor interruption in an extraordinary event. As news reports correctly pointed out, the Amazon Alexa and Google Home technology is becoming commonplace in most home appliances and tech products. Kohler even unveiled an Amazon-Alexa controlled toilet. Yes, a toilet! Intel even got itself into the Guinness Book of World Records when its advanced software fleet of 100 drones that were controlled without GPS by only one pilot put on a spectacular light show over the water at the Bellagio Hotel.

While the big news coming out of CES was about the billion-dollar brands, like LG, Samsung, Google, Amazon and Panasonic, that showcased their latest consumer products, what I always enjoy the most is visiting Eureka Park at CES, which has 900 startups reflecting the vibrant future of the global tech industry.

I loved learning more about tech innovations like virtual/augmented reality, 5G, smart cities, digital health, and artificial intelligence. What I was very excited to understand further were autonomous vehicles. Before CES officially opened on the first day, I headed to the area in the parking lot where the ride service company Lyft was offering complimentary rides around the Vegas strip in autonomously driven BMWs. I inquired as to how I could get a ride and was told to use my phone at exactly 10:00 AM to order an autonomous Lyft ride.

I then headed to a conference session on the state of artificial intelligence featuring Deepu Talla, the vice president and general manager of Autonomous Machines at NVIDIA. Talla discussed the future of autonomous cars and the artificial intelligence breakthroughs from various industries. He documented the rise of artificial intelligence from early tech periods beginning with the advent of the personal computer to mobile technology and then cloud technology until the current era of AI, which will include autonomous vehicles.

At the end of the session it was 10:00 AM so I took out my phone and ordered my autonomous Lyft ride. The modified BMW 5-series was outfitted with Aptiv’s autonomous driving technology. A human driver sat in the driver’s seat and a representative from Aptiv (formerly Delphi Automotive) sat in the passenger seat. Nandita Mangal from Aptiv explained that according to Nevada law the man in the driver’s seat would actually drive the car while we were on private property (the parking lot of the convention center and any hotel parking lots), but when we were on the street the car would go into autonomous mode. Mangal is in charge of the user experience when it comes to Aptiv’s autonomous driving technology. We had a fascinating discussion about the pros and cons to the consumer when autonomous vehicles become mainstream.

I was a little nervous at first but trusted the computers and sensors. I also recognized that riding in a regular vehicle was more dangerous with a potential human error. There was a lot of traffic on the streets along with a torrential downpour, but the autonomous vehicle did very well. At one point two men quickly jumped out of a taxi in front of our vehicle and the autonomous system reacted immediately by slamming on the brakes. The large screen on the dashboard, which shows what the vehicle senses, showed the two men as green blobs on the screen from the car’s thermal cameras.

The 45-minute ride through traffic was very impressive and gave me a sense of the technology to come in the autonomous vehicle industry. We are still further away from this technology becoming mainstream and even more years away from level 5, which is a fully-autonomous system that expects the vehicle's performance to equal that of a human driver in every driving scenario. As Talla explained, it is at level 5 that we’ll be able to sit in the backseat reading a book while our vehicle autonomously drives us around.

Some of the other highlights at CES included meeting with Israeli entrepreneurs at Eureka Park. These startups from the Silicon Valley of the Middle East are focused on all sorts of innovative technology from artificial intelligence and cyber-security to healthcare and water safety. Gal Rozov, an Israeli inventor who is the founder and CEO of FoldiMate, a laundry folding robot, was excited to tell me his invention would be available to the public later this year. I’ve been following FoldiMate’s journey over the years as I think it will be a game changer for consumers. FoldiMate won CES Innovation Awards in 2017 and 2018. It will certainly be a practical invention that will improve our lives. Just think of all the time you’ll save by no longer folding your clothes.

I also thought a Roomba-like tennis ball collecting machine was a smart invention. The little device is controlled by your smartphone and picks up all the tennis balls on a court during a lesson and then brings them back to you using GPS. Another practical product I saw was the PhoneSoap 2.0. Think of it as a bath for your phone. Scientists have said that your phone is full of dangerous germs and bacteria, which can cause influenza. Since you can’t wash your phone, PhoneSoap neutralizes the bacteria that other phone cleaners can't kill.

It was a very impressive CES this year. The innovation was more impressive than in previous years and many of the consumer products from prior years have been improved upon. CES is by far the world’s preeminent technology showcase and innovation catalyst. It’s something I look forward to attending each year. The innovation truly gets me excited for a future full of surprises. In the world of technology, as CES 2018 clearly demonstrated, the best is yet to come.

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