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What is IFA anyway? A.I., autos, and the future at Europe’s biggest tech show

Miss IFA, the mascot of IFA, Europe’s biggest technology show. Image used with permission by copyright holder

The battle between the U.S. and China has shaken global markets and standards of diplomacy in recent weeks, as world leaders weigh in on which companies will build the future — and what role government plays in it. With global battle lines drawn, two giants sit in opposing camps: On one side is Richard Yu, CEO of the enormous Chinese tech titan Huawei. On the other is Cristiano Amon, president of Californian juggernaut Qualcomm, which is slowly but surely unseating Intel as the Americas’ most important semiconductor manufacturer.

That the two execs will stand on the same stage mere hours apart at the IFA 2019 technology showcase seems like the setting for a showdown, a battle royale: Two men enter, one man leaves. Why even set the stage like that?

“There is no lonely inventor inventing innovation

“There is no lonely inventor inventing ‘innovation,’” Jens Heithecker, executive vice president of Messe Berlin and the executive director of IFA, told me. Steve Jobs may have willed the iPhone into existence, but the modern world is driven by collaboration, cooperation, and something IFA calls co-innovation. The event is open to the public and brings together products, developers, tech giants, and even retail and education. After all, a product is only as good as the ecosystem it plugs into; what good is a connected doorbell without something to connect to?

That idea lies at the heart of the show, and it’s one of the reasons IFA is different from trade shows like CES.

“For innovation today, you need many innovative people brought together,” Heithecker said. So what is IFA anyway? You don’t need to know how to spell Internationale Funkausstellung (or International Radio Exhibition in English) to know that IFA is the world’s largest technology show, and it’s happening in Berlin next week. The event may have started as a radio show, but it’s since become Europe’s largest tech show, and with about 100,000 more attendees than CES, it’s ginormous.

IFA is a place for companies like Huawei and Qualcomm — ostensibly combatants — to meet, greet, and set the agenda for tomorrow’s technology. After all, the technology supply chain is permanently globalized, with devices invented from Seoul to Silicon Valley, raw materials mined in Australia and Africa, products assembled in factories in China and Korea and Singapore, and a shipping network that connects France to Finland to the Faroe Islands.

Terminator robots that will steal my job and spy on me in bed? Yikes, that’s scary.

That’s why there’s no audio booth, no TV booth, no separate PlayStation pavilion at IFA. It’s all mixed together, like the global messy world we live in. Who’s’ got time for fighting? There’s business getting done.

A.I. is both boring and terrifying — and completely unavoidable

It’s hard to avoid the topic of artificial intelligence, which has dominated conversations for years. It’s the surest way to either put ordinary people to sleep or terrify the bejeezus out of them. Conversations about development teams and strategies, adaptive algorithms, structured learning? Yikes, that’s dull. Terminator robots that will steal my job and spy on me in bed? Yikes, that’s scary.

Jens Heithecker
Jens Heithecker, Messe Berlin Group senior vice president, IFA executive director Image used with permission by copyright holder

Besides, A.I. is part of every device these days, Heithecker explained. And it’s largely a good thing, leading to devices that adapt to us, rather than the other way around. We just need to convince consumers of that. Perhaps a new name would help, Heithecker suggested.

“That’s why I don’t like the name A.I. — it’s a great name in terms of marketing, but in terms of technology, it is not intelligence. It’s a way of computing with automated routines. We need to take the fear from consumers that A.I. is dangerous to their lives, it will spy on them. On the other side, consumers will feel how much easier it is to use devices,” he told Digital Trends. And we’ll see a new generation of devices at IFA that incorporate A.I. in non-boring, non-scary ways that we’re only beginning to understand.

“For devices, for home appliances, for cooking, even for traffic and mobility, we will see the next generation that we never thought possible,” he said.

IFA Now, and IFA NEXT, and IFA Plus, and IFA tomorrow, and oh my goodness

Data and privacy are even more of an issue than ever before, he warned and IFA aims to set a new bar for accountability, transparency, and so on. To that end, look to the second half of the show: IFA NEXT. If IFA is a product showcase, IFA Next is one for ideas, innovations, and concepts still in the workshop. With keynotes, panel presentations, and talks on digital health, privacy, IoT, mobility, automotive, and more, IFA NEXT aims to show where will be in the near future.

IFA may not have sex robots. Or a battle royale to end all battles. But it will have tech galore

But the fun doesn’t stop there: IFA+ is a connected summit, showcasing general trends that will impact society in the next decade. One day is dedicated to social responsibility, including the role of A.I. in society, how to build ethical machines, finding a balance between convenience and computerization, and more. Another drills into learning machines and smart robots, a track examines smart connectivity and interaction, and so on. Finally, ends with Shift Automotive, “a two-day festival of global insights and ideas that explores how new automotive technology will change the way we think, live and drive.”

Wait, what? This is a tech show?

A decade ago, we reported from Las Vegas on Roxxxy, “the world’s first sex robot” — a life-size rubber doll that’s also a really great conversationalist (yeah, right). This year’s IFA may not have sex robots. Or a battle royale to end all battles. But it will have tech galore for ordinary folks like you and me. And to that end, it’s open to the public, and always has been.

From the first IFA on, we wanted not only to be a show for the engineers and nerds and technicians,” Heithecker said. From the first great German radio show in 1924 — exactly 95 years ago — we said you have to bring in the public, you have to show them. you have to show them what the experience will be, what the benefits will be.”

You might not be able to make it to Berlin, but stick with Digital Trends for complete coverage of the entire show. There may not be sex robots, but today’s show promises to delight nonetheless.

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