Workers help set up the Google booth before CES International, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Workers help set up the Google booth before CES International, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

New generation tech means business

By Louis Fourie Time of article published Jan 17, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - One of the biggest showcases in the world for a variety of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies is the yearly International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that was presented by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) from January 7 to January 10 this year at the Las Vegas Convention Centre in the US.

CES is the world’s gathering place for innovators, technology companies and those who build their business on leading-edge technologies. Over the years this global stage has functioned as the “testing” ground for ground-breaking and next generation technologies.

The CES trade show is known to attract many of the world’s powerful business leaders and innovative thinkers.

In order to get an idea of the extent of CES 2020 it is worthwhile to note that it entailed nearly 4600 exhibiting companies taking up 280000 square metres exhibiting space; more than 1000 speakers; and has been attended by more than 180000 industry professionals from about 150 countries.

CES was indeed a window into the future with many new and creative ideas. Not only newly available technology has been covered, but also conceptual designs that will only be available in the next ten to twenty years, such as flying Uber taxis.

Although CES 2020 featured thousands of new products and services, it is important to look at the bigger picture and have a look at some of the most important technology trends that could fundamentally shape how we will see and define the future.

Technology in the 4IR increasingly touches more aspects of our lives than ever before.

Due to the importance of 5G for driverless cars, the Internet of Things and many other 4IR technologies, it was expected that 5G wireless technology would be one of the major narratives at CES 2020.

There are currently about 50 5G networks around the globe and the number of 5G handsets will increase tremendously over the next few years - from an estimated 20.2 million in 2020 to 133 million in 2023. Several vendors, therefore, displayed their new 5G phones.

But 5G will also play a major role with regard to the Internet of Things (IoT). Here an interesting development is taking place.

There seems to be a movement from the Internet of Things to the Intelligence of Things, indicating the permeation of artificial intelligence (AI) into every aspect of our lives, culture and business.

But according to Steve Koenig, the vice-president of market research at CTA, the real impact of 5G will be experienced with enterprise applications. 5G will literally pervade our economy in the years to come.

Massive IoT with low cost, low energy, small data volumes and massive numbers will be found in smart buildings; logistics, tracking and fleet management; capillary networks; smart and precision agriculture; and smart metering.

Critical IoT with ultra reliable, very low latency, and very high availability will be used extensively for remote health care; traffic safety and control, smart grid automation, industrial applications and control; and remote manufacturing, training and surgery.

All of these important uses of the IoT are highly dependent on the high speed of 5G networks. But before you rush out to buy the newest 5G phone, remember that due to the tardiness of the South African government to avail the necessary frequencies, South Africa is still seriously lacking with regard to 5G.

A second major trend that was obvious from many intelligent devices and services displayed at CES 2020 is the proliferation of AI and machine learning in almost all end devices, services and emerging technologies. AI has become ubiquitous and is hugely improving most services on our computers, smart phones, smart televisions and many more devices.

AI will in future increasingly take over functions routinely performed by humans and will independently take more and more decisions. This trend was evident from the new smart ovens where the smart oven camera detects that the food is frozen and then automatically adjusts the cooking time and heat intensity.

Although not totally new, our homes will really become smart in future. AI will transform our homes into intelligent living spaces where many activities are automated based on individual user preferences and behaviour.

Instead of us taking care of our homes, as is often the case, our intelligent homes will take care of us.

And when you visit one of the famous drive-through restaurants for a quick meal, AI will be at work to assist with the understanding of your speech and to cut down on service times.

At McDonald’s AI even changes the drive-through menus based on the time of day, weather, the traffic and customer orders - all to wheedle the customer to spend more.

As is expected, CES 2020 had numerous companies illustrating their newest robots in all shapes and sizes with a wide variety of applications and functionalities.

Many of these robots were task-based, such as the intelligent and autonomous vacuum cleaner, the automatic bread maker, and several social robots.

Other robots were stationary robots such as Amazon’s Echo and Black and Decker’s Pria medical assistant, where the focus is on human-machine interaction on not so much the mobility of the robot.

The third trend evident from CES 2020, therefore, is that humans will in future have to ever more co-exist with robots. And gradually robots will have an effect on certain jobs currently performed by humans.

CES 2020 further flaunted numerous next-generation AI Chatbots that tracks and finds your favourite music, helps you select a great restaurant for your anniversary, teach you yoga and promises to keep your secrets - hopefully.

Really impressive was the humanlike Neon by a company with a similar name. Neon is an artificially intelligent digital avatar that functions like a chatbot, but with a scary-realistic virtual human body and personality. The highly lifelike “being” is able to mimic real human appearance, mannerisms and emotions.

Neon is so much more than Siri or Alexa and instead of getting tomorrow’s weather or your favourite music, Neon has its own personality, behaves like humans and can have a genuine conversation like a human.

Due to machine learning capabilities, Neons can also remember and learn.

According to Pranav Mistry, the chief executive of Neon, “Neons are more like us, an independent, but virtual living being, who can show emotions and learn from experiences”.

The first generation of Neons is modelled after real people, but future Neons will only look like, but not be identical to humans.

The future possibilities are immense and could include roles such as language tutor, receptionist, financial adviser, concierge, psychological counsellor, medical professional, actor, yoga instructor, television presenter or organisational spokesperson.

According to the company, Neons will not replace current digital assistants or be turned into physical robots. They may in future exist as holograms, very much like the fictional Emergency Medical Hologram Mark I from Star Trek Voyager.

The interaction with Neons would be similar than that of humans via smart phones, tablets, computers, and smart televisions. They would appear similar in size to human beings.

Neons are also not passive and can be offended, hurt, become angry or experience joy and be very pleasant. They cannot be customised, just as you cannot build a friend, but only a relationship.

It will also not be possible to own them - they can only be rented.

Currently in development with a beta format for release later this year, Neon is remarkable, mesmerising and at the same time unnerving.

Pranav Mistry goes as far as to state that Neons are related to humans, but different like a “new species of life”. But alas, you will have to wait a little longer for your Neon companion.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a technology strategist. [email protected]

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