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Source Code at CES: All tech is politics

Image: Ian Ransley / Protocol
Source Code at CES: All tech is politics

Hello! It's day two of CES. We're talking politics, education, chips, crazy gaming chairs, tech-enabled face masks, laptops, some more laptops, a bunch of laptops and all the ways your grill's about to get smarter.

Also, we're doing a live CES roundtable event with some Protocol reporters and some fun guests, on Thursday at 1 p.m. ET / 10 a.m. PT. Register now and come hang with us!

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The Big Story

The Consumer Politics Show

Emily Birnbaum writes: As the world has changed, so has CES. While Big Tech faces a dizzying number of antitrust investigations and small- to medium-sized tech faces the prospects of imminent regulation on everything from privacy to AI, participants have to talk about the elephant in the room: the government.

  • CTA president Gary Shapiro kicked off the show with an opening statement about the riot of Trump supporters that engulfed Capitol Hill last week, which resulted in at least five deaths. "Last week in our home country, the United States, we watched in disbelief as the U.S. Capitol was stolen by a mob — a mob disregarding our democracy, our constitution, and what has proven to be a free and fair election."

Meanwhile, Democrats on Capitol Hill are pledging that they'll use their new control over the House, Senate and White House to crack down on the tech companies, which played an undeniable role in providing a platform to many of the key organizers involved in the riots — including President Trump.

Brian Deese, Biden's incoming National Economic Council director, said at CES that there's a lot the Biden administration will do to support the tech industry.

  • The U.S. government will invest in R&D and call out other countries when they aren't "playing fair," he said, potentially a reference to digital taxes in the EU or IP theft in China.
  • But he said technology companies in particular "have an obligation to think about what it is that they can do to address persistent challenges" that consumers and Americans have been talking about.
  • He said companies have to think about how they're treating their data and their workforce: "There are stakeholders other than the shareholder that are important."

Privacy executives from Amazon, Google and Twitter predicted on a panel later in the day that figuring out a resolution to the death of the privacy shield and the future of cross-border data flows will be one of many priorities in the first 180 days of Biden's presidency.

  • Twitter chief privacy officer Damien Kieran said the new administration could fix cross-border data issues by executive order or through federal law.
  • And Google's chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, said he thinks Congress is "closer than ever" to federal privacy legislation. Amazon's director of Alexa Trust, Anne Toth, agreed, noting exactly who's about to take office. "VP-elect Harris was the attorney general of California and very, very involved in the issue of privacy through her office there, so I absolutely expect … there will be movement on this."

Interview

The blockchain future of education

Talk about education has been everywhere at CES. That's in part because we spent 2020 realizing just how terrible most ed tech really is, and partly because, with so many people unemployed and the skills required in the modern economy changing so quickly, digital education is now a lifelong process.

I caught up with Alex Kaplan, who leads IBM's work on education and blockchain, just before his panel on fostering the next generation of tech leaders. He told me we're in the middle of a complete infrastructural shift in how education works:

  • One big issue, he said, is understanding people's capabilities and fit in an increasingly skills-based economy. "Employers want to search for people who have skills, right? And they want to know those skills are verified. And so with blockchain, we give the individual the authority to make available the credentials they want to … and then people who want to search for credentials, employers can see what credentials are out there."
  • Why blockchain for this? "The idea," he said, "is to have an individual control how they accumulate that data over time." Sure, you could have a big database that says "David knows how to code good," but people learn different skills in different places, and only an open and universal system can keep track.
  • One big challenge: knowing what credentials and certifications mean, and how they compare. "What's really far along in terms of being created," Kaplan said, "is this idea of a registry, and a credential payload, such that if I get a credential from IBM, and I get a credential from Microsoft, and went from the University of Texas, that I can actually do that comparison."

There are plenty of questions left to be answered, Kaplan said, including how much to make this a tech problem at all. By quantifying everything, he said, "we lose something, which is the intangible of how a teacher works with a student in the classroom, and understand who that person really is. We're human beings, we're not a bunch of data points."

  • And there's the equal question of how the learning itself should work. "I think that you have to really step back and reconceptualize how you put together a learning experience for people," Kaplan said. "Taking into account what works well remotely, and what situation, what doesn't, and it really becomes a blended kind of environment."

But still: Creating an open and trustworthy system for sharing qualifications and skills could make it easier to find jobs, apply for and receive new qualifications and skills, and start to improve a lot of really messy employment systems. (No wonder the government's really interested in what Kaplan and IBM are up to.)

A MESSAGE FROM MICRON

Micron

For Raj Hazra, who is senior vice president of corporate strategy and communications at Micron, there has never been a more thrilling time than this golden age of data. In this interview, Hazra describes how "we are now at the doorstep of taking things that we thought were science fiction and making them real, and it's only going to be exponentially faster going forward". Read more from Micron's Raj Hazra.

Chips

Intel outside

The chip industry is pretty sure Intel is vulnerable and is coming hard for the PC market.

  • AMD launched a new lineup of more powerful, more efficient laptop chips, and a big list of OEM partners. Asus launched a couple of laptops with AMD and Nvidia chips. Lenovo's whole Legion lineup of gaming laptops is in on AMD and Nvidia as well.
  • Most AMD-powered laptops are for gamers, but some of Acer's new Aspires have the new Ryzen 5000 as well.

Intel's being attacked from all sides: Microsoft, Google, Amazon and others are making data-center chips, Nvidia is cleaning up on the graphics side of things, and even Qualcomm is starting to build chips for desktops and laptops.

So far, though, nobody has been able to take on Intel's dominance in the enterprise-PC market, which is the real prize in the laptop world. After announcing its own ambitious chip roadmap, Intel still has a chance to stay at the top of the market. But that won't be true forever. Apple and AMD are both proving there's a lot more to be done with PC chips than Intel has been doing.

The Good Stuff

  • Weber announced it's buying June, the smart-oven maker. Which means smarter, connected grills are definitely coming to a backyard near you.
  • There are a million new laptops and monitors this year, which are thinner and faster and all the same stuff that's always true. And then there's the Lenovo ThinkBook Plus 2 i (cool name, Lenovo), which has an E Ink touchscreen on the lid so your laptop can show information even when it's closed. It's pretty clever.
  • Smart masks are everywhere, but none is smarter than Project Hazel, Razer's new reusable N95. It has none of the typical approvals or certifications of this type of mask, but it does have a sick supervillain aesthetic and lights up in RGB. It's all about trade-offs, you know?
  • GM, in addition to its own lineup of electric vehicles (including a flying taxi that is 100% a "Blade Runner" prop), is spinning out a business for delivery and logistics vehicles. It's called BrightDrop, and it starts with an electric delivery van that FedEx has already committed to buying.
  • Speaking of electric flying taxis: Chrysler is building one, too, along with Archer Aviation, that looks very much like something I want to fly in. It only has a 60-mile range, so think "commute to the office" rather than "fly to Bora Bora."
  • Everybody's still stuck on beating AirPods. Anker, top of the "better than you'd think for the price" list in lots of categories, put out an AirPods Pro lookalike that's half the price with most of the same features.
  • A seriously exciting game announcement: A new Indiana Jones title is coming!

One More Thing

Eames who?

Every year, Razer comes to CES with a bonkers concept or two. (Remember the three-screen laptop?) This year's is my favorite ever: Project Brooklyn, a gaming chair that has an integrated 60-inch display, haptic feedback, a built-in desk, whatever "4D armrests" are and basically everything you'd need to turn your chair into your ultimate battle station. It reminds me of the haptic rigs from "Ready Player One," except you sit all day instead of running around. So it's even better.

A MESSAGE FROM MICRON

Micron

For Raj Hazra, who is senior vice president of corporate strategy and communications at Micron, there has never been a more thrilling time than this golden age of data. In this interview, Hazra describes how "we are now at the doorstep of taking things that we thought were science fiction and making them real, and it's only going to be exponentially faster going forward". Read more from Micron's Raj Hazra.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Damian Kieran's name. This story was updated on Jan. 13, 2021.

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