Flying cars and iToilets: welcome to the future

New age: Robot pets (Lovots) are designed to follow their owners and shy away from strangers.

Thousands of glitzy new gadgets have been launched today at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Some of the innovations could transform our lives — but not necessarily for the better.

Facial recognition cat food bowls that only open for specific pets; freshly baked bread vending machines; underwater drones; self-driving cars. From the ridiculous to the revolutionary: the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has it all.

Opening in Las Vegas today, the event brings together 200,000 tech junkies, journalists and entrepreneurs to try out the most cutting-edge gadgets and technology. Some of the gizmos might just revolutionise our lives forever.

This year, the show is dominated by companies trying to make our lives “smarter” — fitting everyday objects with mini computers, cameras or microphones. This allows them to connect to the internet and complete tasks automatically.

Which machine is making the biggest splash so far? The smart toilet. Designed by manufacturing company Kohler, it connects to Amazon’s Alexa and comes with voice controls, personalised cleaning functions, ambient lighting, speakers and a heated seat.

It is just one of countless intelligent household devices on show, including smart padlocks, smart bottle openers, smart fridges, smart doorbells, smart mirrors and smart baby toys.

While all these things may make life more convenient, some worry that the trend is going too far.

“Putting a computer in everything turns the whole world into a computer security threat,” writes Farhad Manjoo. “In a roboticised world, hacks would not just affect your data but could endanger your property, your life and even national security.”

Nevertheless, many remain excited by what CES has to offer. For example, several gadgets promise to boost our health and hygiene. The Y-Brush supposedly gives teeth a perfect clean in just 10 seconds. Various other innovations could improve sleep, decrease anxiety and diagnose genetic diseases.

Then there is the self-driving revolution — something no longer limited to cars. Visitors will see self-driving suitcases whizzing between the stalls, specially programmed to follow their owner. Self-driving lawnmowers, buses and tractors are also on display.

Which of these technologies will catch on remains to be seen.

Power up

Beneath the glitz and gizmos, important questions arise concerning our relationship with technology. Will surrounding ourselves with “smart” objects endanger our privacy? Are we willing to sacrifice some privacy for the convenience these objects bring? Can we bring ourselves to trust a self-driving car, or a medical diagnosis given by an app?

More fundamentally, just how smart should we let machines become? Artificial intelligence is constantly improving and could soon outpace the power of the human mind. What happens if we can no longer control the machines we create?

You Decide

  1. In the next 10 years, will technology have a positive or negative impact on society?
  2. Should we try to use technology less?

Activities

  1. Design your own new gadget that could be exhibited at CES. Draw a diagram and label its special functions. What is it called? How does it work? What can it do? Present your design to the class.
  2. Read the first BBC piece in Become An Expert — it lists many of the technologies that are now on show. As a percentage, how many of the items do you think are useful? How many would you personally use?

Some People Say...

“Technology is a double edged sword. Fire can cook our food but also burn us.”

Jason Silva

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
As well as new gadgets, CES is also exhibiting upgrades on existing technologies. For example, there will be several keynote speeches on the planned 5G mobile network, which will give people access to extremely fast internet connections. Television manufacturers have also developed 8K TVs. These are 16 times the resolution of the current standard HD display (although some think that a normal human eye cannot tell the difference).
What do we not know?
How society’s relationship with technology will change. In a Pew survey of technology experts, 47% of respondents predicted that our well-being will be more helped than harmed by digital life in the next decade — 32% thought that technology would become more harmful.

Word Watch

CES
The event was first held in 1967. At the time, it was dominated by the newest pocket radios and televisions. While cutting-edge TVs are still on display, its range of products has broadened extensively in recent years.
Internet
This process has been called the “internet of things”. Linking everyday objects together through the internet could allow enormous amounts of data to be collected about our daily lives.
Alexa
According to research company Ovum, the number of active digital assistant devices (like Alexa or Google Assistant) in the world will reach 7.5 billion by 2021.
Farhad Manjoo
Read his full piece by following the New York Times link in Become An Expert.
Sleep
One device, called the UrgoNight, uses brain scanning to help you develop more regular sleep patterns.
Cars
Self-driving cars are still some way from revolutionising transportation. Last year an Uber autonomous vehicle killed a pedestrian in a fatal collision.