CES 2018 Review: AI Will Change Our Lives (for better or worse)

The Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, is always an extravaganza. It’s a show designed to amaze visitors with life-changing products and technology that may never see the light of day. There has been a shift over the last few years to present smarter, more realistic visions of the future. Don’t provide an Epcot view of the world: A glimpse of the future with only imagination powering the concept. Instead, give us the best theory of a distant future using current technology along with the tech in active and advanced research.

But not everything at CES is far-fetched tech. Many manufacturers also present products to be released within the next 12 months. This year, some big names made major impacts at presenting mostly existing products while creating a new experience for the crowd.

If you’re a musician or otherwise tied to the music industry, you are undoubtedly familiar with the Gibson brand. The iconic company behind the classic Les Paul shunned the upcoming NAMM Show (the music instrument industry’s preeminent trade show) in favor of a massive CES tent in the parking lot outside the convention center. Gibson’s official statement is that CES is a better show for them to shift the focus to the pro-audio brands the company has been amassing recently.

Upon entering the Gibson booth, you notice a live stage at the end of the tent with a performing band. The wall adjacent the front door is lined with electric guitars and continues this way to the side wall. Following the trail of guitars leads to the corner of the performance stage and the now-famous Gibson guitar throne: A Game-of-Thrones style seat that’s become a sort of traveling guitar shrine. Visitors line up by this mythical chair and have their picture taken as they unveil their best Ozzy or David Lee Roth impersonations.

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The Gibson Throne: Who is Worthy?

The left wall was strewn with bass guitars to finish the loop of the tent and bring you back to the main entrance. The center section consisted of various demo stations. The first half of the stations was devoted to the Phillips audio brand. There were earbuds and headphones (wired and wireless), and a few different models of portable, wireless speakers. The remaining tables were guitar demo stations where each visitor could sit down and choose from a group of instruments and play them through Philips headphones.

Gibson may claim their goal was to shift focus to their pro-audio brands but it felt more like what they were trying to do was posit Gibson guitars as cool consumer products that fit in any entertainment room equipped with premium sound and a 4K television.

Google was another company intent on making a grand appearance. The tech giant has skipped CES since its rise to stardom, opting to hold independent product releases and parties instead. This year was a different story due in large part to the impact Amazon’s Alexa assistant made at last year’s CES. Car companies, home electronics corporations, right down to smaller experimental companies were touting Alexa compatibility at the 2017 CES.

Google was not about to let Amazon take the AI spotlight two years in a row. LG, Kohler, Kia, JBL, Sony, iHome, to name a few, all had products advertising seamless integration with the Google Assistant. Of course, compatibility can vary from the technology recognizing and working with Assistant to it having the AI built into the unit. Regardless of the level of compatibility, it led to Google having more mentions that its closest competitor.

And then there was the booth. Like Gibson, Google opted for an outdoor space at the show—and they used it to do what Google does best. The easygoing company created an experience that was as much about imprinting the Google name on the minds of users as it was about showcasing their products and abilities. The booth had the longest lines of the show with users eagerly waiting to traverse the three-story, two-structure adventure and see the various ways Google affects their lives. The tour culminated with a rooftop café and tunnel slide back to ground level. It was clear Google was determined to win this year’s battle for best invisible technology.

That brings us back to the main theme of the show. As you walked through the booths to see the latest innovations in televisions, kitchen appliances, smart homes, cars, and transportation in general, it became clear there was one unifying decade. The technology we were treated to was looking over thirty years ahead at the year 2050. This is apparently when experts believe technology will control every aspect of our lives in a seamless interaction between human being and artificial intelligence.

The vision relies on one main aspect: autonomous transportation. Self-driving cars eliminate traffic jams as they weave in and out of lanes seamlessly without slowing the flow of other vehicles. Since we no longer need to be in control of our vehicles, there is little need to own them. Vehicles become a service that picks you up and delivers you to a destination. Parks replace parking lots. The car itself becomes a mobile office where you can prepare for a meeting or presentation as you commute.

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Where’s the driver?

In addition to the self-driving car, the smart home will become aware of its inhabitants and work to keep them comfortable. According to Panasonic, the house of the future will not only know and adjust to your habits but will also understand when you are feeling ill and adjust temperature, humidity levels, and other characteristics to care for you.

It was not too long ago that I sat in a technology seminar and was told experts were unable to see beyond 2045 and in fact were concerned of what lay ahead based on the learning rate of our present tech. This year, CES was encouraging us to instead welcome all these changes fearlessly.

Technological advances always pique my interest. Without our efforts to improve technology, we would not enjoy many of the things we live with and take for granted today. Would you like to go back to a world before the Internet, before microwave ovens, or before refrigerators? Yet, it’s also important to remain vigilant about where our new products are taking us as a society and who or what we may be leaving behind.

As someone who’s spent the equivalent of several years on the road thanks to living in Los Angeles and previously having a stint as a sales and merchandising rep, I’ve seen the various minor human errors that lead to accidents. I welcome autonomous transportation and think it will do wonders for our sanity. That doesn’t mean I wish to relinquish all control to computers or that I want Siri or Alexa determining the temperature of my bedroom and prescribing drugs to me because I sneezed inside my house.

CES is a fun show to attend. You get lost in the glamour of a scintillating future with shiny new products. The purpose of the show is to get consumers excited but I can’t help but feel like an ulterior goal may be to desensitize consumers and reduce their fears of technology that grows smarter each year. As a result, we grow closer each year to a future of friendly robots promising to make our lives better. We are more attached to our machines than ever before and one day soon, we may find ourselves unable to distinguish between human and machine interactions.

Real Cars at the Mecum Auto Auction

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Mecum Auto Auction and Dodge Thrill Ride, 2018

Between work, play, and family, Las Vegas is like a second home. This time around, work brought me to the City of Sin a week before Thanksgiving. I flew in Friday morning to walk a stage lighting trade show that day. My job requires I walk shows in search of new markets or product ideas. I landed early but was able to check into my room at about 9 AM at no additional cost. The show didn’t open to the public until 11 AM and after waking up at 4 AM to make the first flight out of Long Beach, I decided to take a nap.

I woke up around 10:30 refreshed and ready to catch the monorail to the convention center. I’ve made this trip so many times it’s become mundane but things were about to take a positive turn on this trip. As the train approached the convention center station I could hear revving engines in the streets below. Being from L.A., I simply assumed someone was flooring the gas pedal at the green light. The blasts continued and grew louder as we reached the station and the doors slid open.

I stepped outside and looked all around to figure out where the commotion was coming from and noticed barricades and traffic cones in a parking lot. The train and other station structures obstructed the view. Then—like a wildcat jumping out to ambush its prey—a neon green Dodge Challenger leapt out of hiding and onto a makeshift racetrack. The car drifted through two figure-8 patterns while plumes of smoke escaped from between the pavement and burning rubber tires.

After only a few moments of staring at the scene below, I had lost all interest in walking a lighting show. I made my way out of the monorail station and stood atop the escalators for a few more minutes getting a full glimpse of the action. In a partnership with the Mecum Auto Auction—a traveling auction for car collectors—Dodge had built this drifting track for all visitors.

I stared at the makeshift track for a while but eventually pulled myself away to go walk the show that brought me to Vegas in the first place. I needed to finish the work before I got down to playing in Las Vegas. I knew I would find my way back to the cars at some point that day.

It took a few hours but I did eventually make my way back to LVCC South. Approaching from the other halls made it easy to spot the crowd lined up for the Dodge Hellcat Thrill Ride. I walked over and parked myself at the end of the line.

The line moved quickly and the drifting action kept everyone entertained for the duration of the wait. There was also a Dodge emcee that kept the crowd engaged giving away small prizes for answering car trivia. He would also sprinkle tidbits about the cars in the demo—none more interesting than the tire facts. The demo went on nonstop from the start of the show until sunset and each set of tires lasted about two hours. They were running through 10 sets of tires per day and this was only day two of a four-day show.

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Tires: Before and after

My turn came up and I hopped into a beautiful Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. The driver introduced himself and proceeded to the starting line as I buckled up. He asked if I was ready as he approached the line without ever coming to a complete stop (what we Angelenos recognize as a California stop) and hit the gas!

The car pushed out of the starting position without hesitation and immediately made a hairpin turn to the left. It quickly exploded again through a short straightaway before the real drifting began. The Hellcat maneuvered through the turns in a matter of seconds. Each turn tossed me off to one side while the driver remained still and in control. Coming out of the last turn, the driver smashed the gas one last time to push the car to the drop-off point. The last growl of the beast subsided to an impressive purr as it came to a complete stop. I exited from the demonic feline under an adrenaline rush and made my way to the auction entrance.

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The Hellcat

The south hall of LVCC had never looked this large. There were cars as far as the eye could see, each asking to be ogled, caressed, and driven. There were dripping wet hot rods, freshly waxed GTO’s, pristine Camaros, and mint-condition cars of the 30’s and 40’s.

My biggest car obsession has always been the Ford Mustang. The infatuation runs so deep that I find every version of the car exciting—even the 80’s compacts with lackluster power. Every decade, every generation of the famed pony car was represented inside the building. My mind drifted. I could see myself driving from Buena Park to Echo Park each evening in one of these horses. The irritations of the daily traffic jam dissipated with a Mustang engine at my command.

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A better way to navigate L.A. traffic

I spent a few hours perusing the aisles: taking pictures, feeling leather interiors, and daydreaming. After making it to the end, I worked my way back to the center of the action. No visit to an auto auction would be complete without pausing to witness the spectacle. There were rows of seated collectors waiting for the right car to be pushed through the red carpet before them. As the sought-after vehicle approached, they waited patiently for the auctioneer to introduce the features of the car before seamlessly transitioning into the signature rapid-fire auctioneer vocalizations. He’d throw out a number, point to the hand in the air, and move to the next bid up and continue the process until hands stopped going up. Hands went up emotionless, like poker players refusing to reveal their hand.

Once the bidding stopped, the car was pushed away from the viewing area. A worker would hop in the car, start it up, and drive it back to its designated parking area for the remainder of the show. The car then sat marked “sold” until the buyer claimed it at the end of the weekend.

The sounds and smells familiar to car enthusiasts were everywhere. You could hear a Corvette roar to life, see a Plymouth Superbird cruise through the halls, and spot a restored Model T shake and rattle its chrome components. The aroma of gasoline permeated throughout the hall. In today’s world of the silent Prius, self-parking Fusion, and self-driving Tesla, the Mecum Auto Auction was a reminder of how driving a car should always feel.

A Painful Commute Through Los Angeles

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I sat on the Five watching the temporary dividers, empty construction trucks, and mounds of gravel off to the side as my car inched forward. I slowly moved north out of Orange County wishing I were anywhere else but on the freeway.

“The Five is never the answer.” This has become my motto over the years of driving the freeways and streets of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the Five freeway is one that is sometimes inevitable. Surface streets are nightmarish in the suburban landscape that stretches from Lakewood to Cerritos. It’s simply easier to join the masses and convince myself the crawl is normal traffic in L.A.

My energy drained away with each passing minute. It became difficult to keep my eyes open despite an open moon roof and a stereo on full blast. The cars moved slower and the radio became distant. I was singing along but unable to keep up with the song. It was as if my soul was pulling away from my body.

This has been my typical route for ten years: Echo Park to Buena Park in the morning and back to EP in the evening. The commute has taken a toll on my body and mind. I stare at the brake lights ahead and the headlights to my left and I wander off. With partially open eyes I dream of sending my daughters to college, eventually affording a house in L.A., traveling, and working from the comfort of my home without ever sitting on the Five.

As the dreams meander through the roads of my brain, the red shimmer of brake lights ahead startles me and I slam the brakes. The car comes to a halt with two car lengths ahead of me. I look up at the green sign overhead and realize I’m about to reach my destination. Orange County is now a fuzzy memory of a day left in the past.

I walk in the door with my youngest daughter in my arms and greet my oldest daughter as she watches TV in the living room. It’s almost 7 PM and this is the first time I’ve seen her awake. My wife is still at work and won’t be home for almost two hours. I have just enough time to make dinner, eat, get the baby to bed, and crash alongside her. Then it’s time to get on back on the freeway. I can’t help but think it’s time to make changes.

Much like the construction currently changing the bandwidth and shape of the Five, I can’t change overnight. I can slowly build my new route alongside the existing freeway. I can attend work every day and take a few hours to try something else. As time passes, the alternate route may begin taking shape and I can use it as a partial way home. If the new road begins to save time and stress, it’s time to begin shifting towards that road. There is no doubt that it will take some time but perhaps in five years—when I turn 42—I can finally eliminate my commute and exit the Five one last time.