If you were at CES and not overwhelmed by the array of products in front of you, I’m impressed. Every year I come back feeling like I saw only saw a tenth of the things that were there and that I may have been impressed by all of the wrong ones. Although this year, I was right about the headless kitten robots, which the press got especially excited about but which will always creep me out.
Kevin and I already wrote about some of the things we saw, along with a few trends, but I wanted to focus on some of the bigger realizations I had. These are themes I’ll return to again and again in the year ahead because they either changed my thinking or directed my attention to something that I believe is going to be important.
Let’s dig in.
Technology for seniors doesn’t have to be medical-related! Cezara Windrem of the AARP’s Innovation Labs kept talking about augmented and virtual reality during her time on the panel mentioned above. She discussed grandparents putting on VR glasses while stuck at home, either in order to interact with their grandkids or to more broadly “see the world.”
Using such technology helps counter the isolation that many seniors can feel, especially if they are unable to move about easily. I had assumed she was going to spend her time on the panel talking about medical technology for remote monitoring or diagnostics, or how to help people age in place — even how seniors tended to view technology.
But her stories were all about engaging with seniors, and bringing more of the world to them through partnerships with Microsoft and Magic Leap. Having the elderly use technology to connect — as opposed to being surveilled to prevent them from falling or ensure they get out of bed in the morning — had not occurred to me, and I felt ashamed of my myopia.
We are nowhere near serious enough about climate change: The show floor at the Sands had a company building a re-usable connected box to replace cardboard, a giant box that pulls moisture from the air to turn it into potable water, and even a personal air purifier. In this time of floods, fires, and other disasters brought about by climate change I saw lots of technology that would be useful. (Some of it, such as the Embr personal cooling device, wasn’t designed as a response to climate change but would still come in handy).
There were a lot of interesting startups, but it also felt like there should be so many more. When I’d ask companies about e-waste and their strategies for cutting consumption, most didn’t have concrete examples. Instead, they cited sustainability as a 2020 corporate goal or talked about investments in clean water. For example, instead of a smart home robot digital assistant or a realistic digital avatar, Samsung should be showcasing its strategies for reducing e-waste and packaging.
At an event designed for consumer technology, consumerism ran rampant and sustainability was simply for show. For example, you could dump your CES name badge in a recycling bin, but water coolers to refill an existing water bottle were hard to find. And the sheer amount of plastic junk on display was astonishing. We need to invest a lot in technology to mitigate climate change and help us live in a changing world, but we also need to be thinking about how to build products designed for recyclability and asking ourselves if the product we’re building is something the world really needs.
Tech firms need to grow up and recognize the potential harm of their inventions: One of the news bits that excited me at CES was the launch of Wi-Fi-based motion sensing from Cognitive Systems getting added to Plume’s adaptive Wi-Fi system. It means that customers using Plume’s and Cognitive’s software in their routers can start offering motion detection without additional sensors or cameras. Cognitive uses disruptions in RF waves to figure out if something is moving, and can even figure out who is moving if they are carrying a phone.
Using Wi-Fi for motion sensing is cool because people can use it for things like fall detection or improving home security — all without adding cameras. But this isn’t benign technology. Because these RF fields penetrate walls, it’s possible to see motion inside a house from the outside. And as the algorithms get better, it’s possible to tell what people inside the house are doing. Plume customers, such as ISPs, can use that data to get a fairly detailed sense of user behavior in their homes.
In the case of a subpoena, that motion data might find its way into the hands of law enforcement, giving them an incredibly fuzzy view inside of someone’s home. When I asked Cognitive’s marketing manager about it, she was willing to engage on the topic but hadn’t spent much time thinking about it.
Cognitive isn’t the only company at the bleeding edge of technology that is doing something really innovative without having a clear view of how it could be used against consumers. I saw dozens of companies at CES building devices that could capture tons of personal data that couldn’t answer my basic questions about data encryption or why they needed the data they were collecting.
Not everything needs to be smart: This realization is tied to the one above. If companies aren’t going to respect our privacy and figure out good uses for the data we’re handing over, maybe we don’t need their products. Or maybe we don’t need a product that is connected, period. Several of the devices I saw at the show, especially the health and wellness devices that offer deep insights about my athletic performance or health based on my heart rate, sleep cycles, or even my urine composition, are only going to tell me something I likely already know.
The vast majority of people already know if they’re not sleeping well or if they need to eat more greens. Having a device tell them that isn’t going to change their underlying behavior. So maybe they don’t need such products. The risk of losing that data outweighs the potential reward provided by the medical device. As I looked at a pet fitness tracker (Kevin is planning on buying one) and then at yet another connected smart mirror, I felt a sense of fatigue. I realized it’s time for me to be a bit more judicious about the tech I embrace and to truly understand why I’m adding it to my life. And if it doesn’t deliver, I should throw it out.
I’m surprised CES made me rethink the role of gadgets in my life, but here we are.