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Source Code at CES: The robots are in charge

Image: Protocol
Source Code at CES: The robots are in charge

Hey there! It's day three of CES. Today we're talking robots, drones, webcams, projectors, dishwashers and more. Most of all, the tech industry is looking inward, trying to figure out how to be better.

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The Big Story

Robots all the way down

Mike Murphy writes: It's been clear for a while now that the future of technology is less about consumers doing things with their technology and more about their technology doing things for them.

The last few years have been dominated by automakers, aviation companies, roboticists and even tractor manufacturers. Companies are pushing to make the lives of everyday people safer and simpler, and an entire cottage industry has sprung up around this push into autonomy. Companies peddling lidar systems, others that want to bring robots into our homes to do literally anything other than vacuum, and software firms that want to provide the tech stack for autonomous products are now as common at CES as gaming laptops and novelty phone cases.

There has been a bevy of autonomy-focused announcements so far this year, too:

  • Cadillac's autonomous people-mover and flying machine. GM showed off two futuristic concepts in its keynote address around the company's push into electrification and self-driving vehicles. It already has its Cruise division working on AVs, but GM is now starting to think about what the future of its flagship brand looks like when the hurdles of autonomy have been cleared.
  • GM's BrightDrop pallets. GM CEO Mary Barra also announced this week that the company would be launching a new subdivision focused around logistics and electric vehicles. As part of that, it's developing the EP1, a pallet that can roll alongside warehouse workers on its way to being loaded up on GM's new electric delivery vans.
  • Samsung home bots. Following on from the wacky and weird robots Samsung has presented at the last two CES events (who could forget Ballie?), the company showed off two more designs this year: One is a rather standard vacuum robot called JetBot 90 AI+, but the other, the wonderfully-named Bot Handy, is meant to pour you drinks and fill your dishwasher.
  • LG's disinfecting bot. It's essentially a UV light on wheels that can roll itself around offices, schools or restaurants, theoretically ridding them of germs. That could come in handy … if we ever go back to any of those places again.
  • UPS and Verizon drones. Verizon's drone software division, Skyward, is partnering with UPS' drone delivery arm, Flight Forward, to offer drone delivery services in The Villages retirement community in Florida. They'll soon start testing drones that communicate over Verizon's 5G UWB network.
  • Baidu and Geely link up. The Chinese search giant and the automaker behind Volvo announced they would be partnering up to make electric vehicles. Part of the expertise that Baidu brings to the table: autonomy, the company told the BBC.

But hold your horses. CES can be an excellent showcase for tech, but it's better to think about it as a window into what may be coming in the future rather than what's here today. (Not to mention, a good planning exercise if you're building stuff in the robot stack.) We are years — perhaps decades — away from general autonomy, and the picking challenges required for Samsung's robots are some of the most difficult hurdles roboticists have been trying to conquer for years. At least our phones can roll themselves away now, though.

Time for Change

Tech companies reckon with their power

Obviously there are more important things in the world right now than CES. (I mean, pick your favorite just from Wednesday, between impeachment, record COVID deaths, new COVID variants' spread and the fear of more riots to come before next week's inauguration.)

Maybe that's why a couple of the most important, affecting moments so far this week at CES came from tech leaders calling on the industry to try a lot harder to make the world better.

  • "Increasingly I think people around the world are looking at us," Microsoft's Brad Smith said, "and they want to know not just about our heart but our soul." He talked about the importance of keeping humans in charge of technology, and not letting machine learning or ranking algorithms rule the world. And he said tech needs to switch from thinking only about all the cool stuff new tech can do to thinking about and planning for the problems it might create.
  • Later in the day, Walmart's Doug McMillon spent most of his keynote talking about diversity. In particular, he said, the killing of George Floyd forced him to rethink what Walmart was doing to promote diversity. "You kind of tell yourself, 'We're doing what we should be doing, we can see progress, yes we should be doing more,"' he said. "And then something like this happens … it really did create an opportunity to make more progress, faster. And so we've been trying to seize that."

There have been a lot of stop-in-your-tracks moments in the past year. Whether it's the pandemic as a whole, the riots at the Capitol, or the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, these events that made it all-too painfully clear that things need to change. And every corporate leader needs to see those moments as not something to get through and move past, but as a catalyst to be 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.

The Good Stuff

  • There hasn't been much in the way of webcam innovation in all the new laptops this year. Except for the Avita Admiror II, which has three webcams at different focal lengths, plus a built-in ring light around the whole display. More like this, please!
  • I think projectors might be the future of TV. (How's that for a hot take?) They're smaller, more portable, easy to make interactive and work in lots of spaces. LG's pushing hard on the tech, showing off its latest 4K laser projector with lots of streaming apps built in. Downside: It's $3,000.
  • High-end monitors are everywhere at the show, both for PC gamers and for people looking to upgrade their home office a bit. Plus, thanks to HDMI 2.1, everybody's coming out with new stuff. Dell's curved 40-incher sounds like overkill and Asus' 43-incher just seems bananas, while LG's lineup sounds a little more practical.
  • Ring added end-to-end encryption to doorbells and cameras. This is a long time coming, and part of Ring's attempt to clean up a lot of security flaws and privacy questions.
  • On the everything's-a-screen beat, how about your car windshield? Panasonic's new head-up display turns the whole window into an AR display, which appears to make every drive feel a bit like a Forza lap. Not coming for a few years, though.
  • The winner of the Most CES-y Thing at CES award: Yves Saint Laurent Beauté Rouge Sur Mesure Powered by Perso (whew), which I can only describe as a 3D printer for lipstick. It can make any shade you want on the fly, and there's even a social network involved!

One More Thing

TV anywhere

Speaking of projectors: I'm oddly smitten with the Asus ZenBeam Latte, a portable projector/Bluetooth speaker about the size of the old Google Home. It sounds like a perfect travel gadget/living room accessory/party trick. Much better than making everyone stare at your phone — just throw the latest Shantytok banger on the wall, and you're good to go.

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.

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