You didn’t have to look far for stories of techpocalypse in 2019: Hackers were taunting children through compromised surveillance cameras, deepfakes undermined our perception of reality, and the vape pens we thought were saving us from cigarettes turned out to be killing us, too. Whoops.
But as 2020 dawns in Las Vegas, the story at CES, the world’s largest technology conference, doesn’t look so grim. In this patch of desert where fantasy and reality blur, technology remains the untarnished hero. The 4,500 exhibitors here either missed the memo that technology is supposed to unravel civilization, or simply don’t believe it.
And in the stifling cynicism of our time, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air.
Yes, the corridors of the Las Vegas Convention Center are crawling with Gucci-suited scammers, fast-talking PR flacks, and fist-pounding corporate buyers barking into Bluetooth headsets. This year, someone even thought it was smart to put a clueless White House puppet on stage. The skeptics have plenty to feast on.
But I’m making an effort this year not to lose track of the true believers. They still see problems in society, and they still see technology as the solution. They’re not ready to throw in the towel and run back into their caves.
They’re showing off solar panels that can generate clean drinking water with sunlight and air, discreet monitors to help caregivers keep tabs on aging relatives, hearing aids that isolate a speaker’s voice using A.I., and more.
History tells us many of these efforts will fumble or outright fail. The cute, green $100 laptops we thought would save the world never really did. The calorie-tracking bracelet we thought would revolutionize fitness never quite worked well enough. And I’ve yet to see anybody walking around with a 3D-printed ear.
But the true believers have their victories. Thomas Serval showed up to CES 2014 with Kolibree, an A.I.-powered toothbrush that gamifies oral hygiene for kids. He dreamed it up when he struggled to get his daughter to brush her teeth, but saw how she gravitated toward his phone. “I said, how I can take his addiction and turn it into a good thing?” he recalls. Kolibree went on to rack up accolades from dentists and consumers alike. Parents of autistic children write to him to tell him how it has improved one of the hardest parts of their daily routine. Colgate licensed it, and now it’s all over the globe.
“Every new technology has always a dark side,” Serval concedes, “but blaming tech for being the source of our weaknesses is not really understanding who you really are. If you don’t go out; it’s your own fault. It’s not your phone’s fault.”
For CES 2020, Serval is back with Mateo, a smart bath mat that reads your weight every day as you stand in front of the sink. Using machine learning to study minute changes in your weight and posture, it can even be used to detect when someone is prediabetic, or at the onset of Alzheimer’s.
This will be my 13th year at CES. I’ve attended every year since I was able to order a $14 Budweiser without a fake ID, and I’ve experienced every phase of regard for the entire affair: Elation, exhaustion, disdain, and now, weirdly, optimism.
Today, I drive a plug-in vehicle that steers me back into my lane if I veer out, my home automatically turns down the thermostat and locks the doors when I’m away, a pocket-sized phone allows me to effortlessly connect face-to-face with friends and family thousands of miles away. Many of these technologies first arrived as awkward prototypes at CES. They didn’t work right at first. They cost too much. And then we figured them out. Today, all of them make my life, and maybe even the world, a little better.
Tech can absolutely suck. We all stare at our phones too much, social media is making teens more depressed, and A.I. could put a lot of people out of jobs. We can’t ignore these problems. But if tech created them, wouldn’t it be nice if it could solve some of them, too?
I think it can, and at CES, I’m not alone.
“Will we grow to the right level of maturity to deal with this, or will we stay eternal children?” Serval says of the skepticism surrounding tech right now. “I’m still optimistic.”
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