I Saw the Integrated Future at CES

CES is traditionally a wonderland of new devices and new technologies, some frivolous and some functional, some ready-for-prime-time and some preparing for a hopeful or eventual future.

Also, traditionally, most of these new devices and technologies exist by-and-large in siloes, distinct product categories or distinct applications designed to work, perhaps, tangentially, complementary or supplementary with other existing or new devices and technologies.

This year’s CES felt different to me. Dotting the show floors were the usual array of new devices and technologies, including new Amazon Alexa and Google smart speakers, devices with AI or machine learning capabilities, 5G cellular and so-called fixed wireless broadband for last mile connectivity solutions, AR and VR tech and accessories, robots, health/bio/med tech, drones, wireless power transmission, and autonomous vehicles, to name a few.

On the surface, these all seem to be distinct product categories or technologies. But they’re not. They’re increasingly interdependent and symbiotic—unlike IoT, which wirelessly links disparate products. Advances in one of these emerging technologies allows—no, fuels—advances in others. Fatter pipes enable more data to be exchanged which, in turn, enables developers to expand capabilities. The result is an intricate and expanding mosaic in which the parts are subsumed into a seamless application.

All these symbiotic technologies are converging in an integrated future that is being loosely grouped under the “smart cities” rubric, but they also extend to smarter homes and smarter cars.

In its Central Plaza exhibit, for instance, HERE, an “open location platform company” (which evolved from Nokia’s acquisition of navigation mapping pioneer Navteq), presented a fascinating video (and obviously conceptual) of what life could be like in Dubai (and, presumably elsewhere) in 2050—a life that encompasses and integrates all of these new, heretofore seemingly distinct, technologies into an integrated infrastructure.

We’ll first see the confluence of these heretofore distinct technologies in autonomous vehicles, especially 5G, AI, machine learning and even wireless power transmission. By necessity, autonomous vehicles also incorporate advanced smart learning sensors, voice command, remote smart home control and perhaps even continuous wireless power charging via smart roads imbedded with wireless power transmitters now being tested in Colorado, France and Israel.

At its Central Plaza booth, NXP (which may or not be soon acquired by Qualcomm) showed a video of this 5G/AI integration via V2X (vehicle to everything) and V2V (vehicle to vehicle) communications. The video illustrates how an individual autonomous auto uses all this integrated technology to learn and adapt to new or changing conditions. This intel is then nearly instantaneously shared with other autonomous vehicles via a 5G network to create an interconnected intelligence, similar to (but hopefully not as nefarious as) the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This same confluence of advanced AI/machine learning, renewable energy and utilities, high-speed wireless communications technologies, autonomous vehicles, mass transportation and distribution, and collective shared intelligence form the foundation for smart cities. Examples of this were also on display at CES at several keynotes, panel sessions and booths.

Much of this technological convergence may seem utopian fantasy and as far-fetched as the Jetsons, especially considering the inevitable conflicting corporate interests, standards and platform competition, myopically protective government policy, and opposition by entrenched legacy technologies. But the first rollouts of 5G will be upon us in a year or so. Several states are considering or have already passed autonomous vehicle legislation, and there already are model smart city projects, such as the Panasonic-led smart city project in Fujisawa, Japan and Panasonic- and Cisco-led efforts in Berlin.

This convergence of next-generation technologies is happening now—in this generation. History informs us that the future is an inevitable force that comes upon us sooner than expected and often in unexpected forms. Those who ignore, dismiss, fight or impede the future are often the first ones trampled by it.