At the world’s biggest gadget show, everything is always amazing. Every year, more than a hundred thousand CES attendees pour into Las Vegas to convince each other and the world that everything before was crap and everything to come will change that. They go to see the biggest and thinnest new TVs, the fastest and lightest new laptops, the headphones and the phone cases and the drones and the refrigerators. All of it more powerful than last year’s model, more connected, more deeply integrated into your everyday life.
CES 2018, which kicks off with a day of press conferences on Monday, January 8, followed by three days of presentations, demos, and booth tours inside the continent-sized Las Vegas Convention Center, will be filled with new products the likes of which we’ve never seen. The tech industry sits at the beginning of so many fundamentally new things, from augmented and virtual reality to self-driving cars to the smart home to all things artificial intelligence. Each of these will re-shape our lives in ways we don’t yet understand. Neither do the tech companies. And so CES will be a testing ground for lots of products and ideas, most surely ridiculous and a few possibly game-changing.
Brave New World
In many ways, actually, you could argue that CES is more relevant than it’s ever been. Everything’s a gadget now! A smart washing machine doesn’t seem so ridiculous anymore, now that you can control it with your voice and it can automatically help save you money. 4K is finally tipping from high-end nicety to standard fare. Everyone needs new headphones, now that the jack on their phone is gone. And the next version of every appliance and furniture item you own will be connected in some way. Consumers and their electronics are tied together like never before. CES used to be for processor nerds, but now reads like next season’s West Elm Catalog.
Something about this year feels different, though. The tech-buying public is no longer interested only in the newest, thinnest, and fastest. They’re beginning to ask important, overdue questions. Questions about what these gadgets are doing to our brains, our attention spans, and our understanding of the world we live in. About what it means for their washing machine to collect and store personal data, and how much data they should be comfortable with. About whether we’ve been using tech all this time, or letting tech use us.
The show kicks off 2018 after a, uh, tumultuous 2017. Seemingly everybody’s personal data was exposed, whether by Equifax or Yahoo or any of the dozens of other hacks. Facebook and Twitter spent the year reckoning with the fact that their algorithms have real-life consequences. Alexa and Google Assistant invaded millions of homes, testing the limits of how much people are willing to be listened to, and seen, in the name of awesome new features. Virtual and augmented reality became just real enough to display their potential—and the scary downside of technology that tricks your brain into believing something fake is real.
The Future Is Out There
Of course, everyone at CES could just smile their winningest Vegas smile, ignore the problems, and continue right on with the TV announcements. They’ll probably do just that. But at this year’s show, the one time a year when virtually everyone in the tech industry hangs out in the same place for a week, here’s what we hope to see: at least a few companies ready to address the world as it now is. Ready to look at the ethics of AI, and think through the biases of their algorithms and what that means for their world. Ready to try and build tools that can’t be misused, rather than hiding behind some non-apology about “intended uses.” Ready to talk honestly about what they’re doing with user data, and ready to help people understand the tradeoffs. Ready to acknowledge the dangers in all this incredible new technology, and dive head-first into trying to avoid them.
The most fun thing about CES is that it’s mostly pretend. You walk through the cavernous convention center looking at the gorgeous TVs you can’t afford, trying on the headphones you’ll never remember the name of, and sitting in the drivers’ seat of a car that’ll probably never even hit the road. All you can hope for, really, is a few good ideas about what’s coming next. Last year we were excited about toys that teach kids to code, robots that zip around your house helping you get things done, and all the gadgets that offered new ways to interact with technology.
This year, we’re looking for new ideas about privacy, and how companies can help us protect our data and ourselves. We’re looking for ways to get our eyes and brains away from our smartphones, keeping us just as connected but not as distracted or isolated. We’re looking for gadgets that make real things better for people, rather than just slapping a giant screen on a giant fridge. Yeah, we’re looking at robots, we’re looking at TVs, and we’re listening to headphones. But we’re hopeful that 2018 could be the year users finally control their technology rather than being controlled by it. And we’re hoping it starts in Vegas.