Christie Hemm Klok / AP
Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Imagine this: When you leave the house, your air conditioner and lights turn off automatically. Then when a motion sensor detects a person in the house, like your house cleaner, it sends an alert to your phone. When you arrive home, a camera recognizes who you are and the door automatically unlocks.
Automated technologies like these will be at the forefront of CES, one of the world’s largest tech conventions, next week in Las Vegas. They underline one major trend: Increasingly, the innovations that are making their way into your personal technology aren’t physical electronics or gadgets at all.
The real star is artificial intelligence, the culmination of software, algorithms and sensors working together to make your everyday appliances smarter and more automated. It is AI that is telling the door to unlock when the camera recognizes you, or sending an alert to your phone when sensors detect a person.
“It’s less about the hardware, and more about what’s inside,” Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst for Creative Strategies, said about the prominence of artificial intelligence and software innovations at CES. For consumers who are dazzled by flashy new devices, AI is never as exciting, she said — but it’s the magic that is making hardware evolve.
That artificial intelligence will take center stage at CES also speaks to how the event has changed in the last few years. It has become less of a venue for tech companies to unveil splashy new products like smartphones or computers, and instead has turned into a showcase for nascent technologies.
Here are some highlights you can expect from next week’s show.
Alexa and Her Counterparts
Alexa, Amazon’s intelligent assistant that listens to your voice commands to play music, order diapers and place a phone call, will be everywhere at CES.
Smaller tech companies have teamed up with Amazon to bring voice-controlled smarts to their products. Devices like light bulbs, car stereo accessories, robovacuums, home security systems and even coffee makers will work with Alexa. In addition, thousands of companies have developed “Skills,” or third-party apps, that work with Alexa voice commands. Sonos, a premium audio brand, recently released a speaker that can be controlled with Alexa.
What’s fueling interest in Alexa? Amazon’s success with Echo, the smart speakers enabled with the personal assistant. Amazon said last month that it sold tens of millions of Echo devices over the holiday season. Strategy Analytics, a research firm, estimates that 68 percent of voice-controlled speakers sold last year worked with Alexa.
Other tech giants want a piece of the pie, too. In 2016, Google introduced Home, an artificially intelligent speaker to rival the Echo. The search giant will have a large presence at CES, where the company is also expected to highlight accessories that work with its Home speaker and Google Assistant.
Apple this year will release HomePod, a speaker that relies on Siri, the Apple assistant, to control some smart home accessories. And Samsung Electronics, the South Korean manufacturer, is expected to unveil a major upgrade for Bixby, its virtual assistant, later this year.
“If I had to make a bet, it’s the year of AI and conversational interfaces,” said J.P. Gownder, an analyst for Forrester Research.
Nowadays, it’s easy to shop for high-quality internet-connected home accessories, like light bulbs, thermostats and security cameras. At CES, Samsung is even planning to introduce a smart refrigerator at the electronics show that can listen to voice commands to control other home accessories.
Now tech companies are looking to push internet connectivity beyond products in your home.
Consider parking spaces that can sense whether cars are occupying them, and can then alert people when spots free up. Or a garbage can that can notify a waste collection facility when the container is full, or street lamps planted throughout a city that could monitor air quality.
“You’ve seen the smart home,” Gownder said. “The smart city is elevating that to the next level.”
Deloitte, the consulting firm, has been making a big push for smart cities. It envisions a future where a multitude of sensors work together to create a healthier, safer and more energy efficient town. Sensors in a river could detect pollution like leaks from chemical plants, and sensors that detect the sound of a gunshot could be used to alert police, for example.
Next week, companies will demonstrate prototypes of devices embedded with some of these sensors with the hope that cities will soon begin adopting these technologies within their infrastructure.
Self-driving car enthusiasts like Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, dream of a future where driverless cars eliminate traffic accidents while letting people do work on their commutes.
They can keep dreaming: Autonomous vehicles still have a long way to go before they become safe and properly regulated.
“Your car doesn’t drive itself, at least not reliably for a long period of time,” said Milanesi of Creative Strategies.
Still, at CES, carmakers like Ford, Hyundai, BMW and Audi are expected to show off the latest improvements to self-driving tech, like smarter parking assistance and less error-prone collision avoidance. These are baby steps toward truly driverless vehicles, but some features may appear in cars in the coming years.
Likely coming sooner is the so-called connected car. Tech and car companies will demonstrate new features for internet-equipped cars, like the ability to pay for parking and gas through a dashboard or cameras that enhance a driver’s side and rear vision. At the trade show, Gentex Corp., a company that develops car technology, will demonstrate in-vehicle biometrics that scan a driver’s iris to verify his or her identity before turning on the car.
Next-Generation Wireless Technology
As a growing number of devices rely on artificial intelligence, they will require faster bandwidth speeds. At CES, wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon are expected to give progress reports on so-called 5G, the fifth-generation network technology.
With 5G, wireless carriers envision an era of incredibly fast speeds that let smartphone users download a movie in less than five seconds — roughly 100 times faster than the current network technology, 4G. Even more important, 5G is expected to greatly reduce latency to let devices communicate with each other with extremely fast response times.
(One caveat: the wireless industry is not expected to roll out 5G until 2020. Telecom equipment makers and tech companies are still fighting over which of their technologies should be standardized globally.)
So why should you care? All of the above — the smart city, the driverless car and smarter artificial intelligence — will need extremely fast response times for devices to work reliably. The chief example is driverless cars, which will have to communicate with one another practically in real-time to avoid collisions.
“It could be foundational to the next generation of advancements,” said Greg Roberts, an executive at Accenture, a tech consulting firm. “You’re going to see more talk around the potential of 5G to remove the barriers around bandwidth.”