Smart tech tops bill at festival of gadgets

Tech it out: Four of the gadgets on display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

From Big Brother toothbrushes to driverless cars, the gizmos of tomorrow are wowing viewers at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. But is technology detracting from human experience?

Technology enthusiasts have been on tenterhooks throughout this week at the annual international Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The gadgets of the near future are being unveiled and plant pots, kettles, toothbrushes and walkmans are talk of the town.

These objects may sound suspiciously familiar, but at the world’s largest showcase of industry trends, not everything is quite what it seems.

Take Parrot Pot for instance, a plant pot that contains sensors that allow it to water itself via a smartphone. Green-fingered aficionados need never actually get their hands dirty, say its inventors.

Health monitoring is one of the themes to emerge from this year’s show, with an array of digital, often wearable devices aimed at alerting us to the state of our lifestyles. Electronic toothbrushes that sync with phone apps and report back to parents on how well their children are brushing their teeth are just one unnerving example.

Some of the new inventions have provoked ridicule in the press, with many questioning the need for such technology. The man behind the world’s first ‘smart belt’, which tells the wearer when it’s time to lose weight, prompted sniggers when he pointed out that ‘the belt experience hasn’t changed in centuries’.

But out of all the blinking, buzzing gadgets at this year’s CES, it is drones and driverless cars that have stolen the show. Already well on the way to becoming affordable features of our everyday lives, they are being taken very seriously indeed.

Neither are without their pitfalls. Autonomous cars have not always proven so clever, while experts also worry that mentally switched off drivers will make roads less safe. And reports of near-collisions caused by drones in the hands of amateurs are on the rise. Unmanned aerial vehicles are technology’s ‘new Wild West’, as one drone inventor says.

Brave new world?

Transforming inanimate, seemingly dull objects into capable and useful tools will ultimately change our lives for the better, optimists say. The so-called ‘internet of things‘ will make us more organised and less forgetful and prompt us to be healthier. With houses that can warn us about floods, keep an eye on small children or turn off the hob when we forget, it could even save our lives.

But others fear that inventions like these will make us more passive and disconnected from the world we live in. Is a self-sufficient plant really more desirable than carefully tending your flowers with a watering can? What pleasures, skills and emotions will we lose as we allow technology to take over every facet our everyday lives? As we grow more dependent on technology, we humans will regress into mindless, incapable beings.

You Decide

  1. Which invention (if any) mentioned in the story most excites you? Why?
  2. ‘It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.’ Do you agree with Albert Einstein’s judgement?

Activities

  1. Draw a cartoon based either on one of the inventions described in the story, or on one you discover through your own research.
  2. Come up with your own invention to solve an everyday problem, or think or an aspect of your life that could benefit from technological innovation.

Some People Say...

“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.’Melvin Kranzber”

What do you think?

Q & A

These shows are just for geeks.
Not so. The majority of the products on display, like fridges that send texts and locks that open with the tap of a phone, have been designed for as wide an audience as possible, as companies rack their brains for new ways of boosting the electronics market. This year’s convention featured ideas for digital health, education technology, robotics and 3D printing.
But surely loads of these ideas will never catch on?
Probably not. Lots of launches at CES have struggled to gain traction outside the show, such as 3D TVs. That said, creativity breeds creativity. Although some of these ideas are just too whacky, too expensive or too pointless to succeed, they still continue to push the boundaries of innovation in surprising ways. That’s why the CES is so exciting.

Word Watch

CES
The CES is now in its 47th year. The event features two miles of floor space, and attendance will once again surpass the total number of hotel rooms available in Las Vegas. Yet some say it is beginning to lose its shine as companies shift to hosting their own, exclusive events to launch big products.
Walkmans
The original cassette Walkman was the first ever portable personal music device that ordinary people could afford. It was launched in 1979 but brought to an end in 2010. Now Sony has launched a new version for £949.
Clever
The cars can park expertly by themselves, but often back themselves into spaces so tight they leave drivers unable to get out of the vehicle.
Drones
Drones cost as little as £30 and there are more than 50,000 in the UK. They are barely regulated and there is growing evidence that they are being used to harass and spy on people. The most serious incident was at Heathrow last July when one nearly crashed into an Airbus jet.
Internet of things
A term for the growing number of appliances, accessories, and other objects that are able to connect to the Internet in some way.

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