underwater drone demo at CES 2019
PHOTO: CES

The annual pilgrimage of 180,000 people from 155 countries visiting 4,500 of the world’s biggest tech companies — otherwise known as CES 2019 — took place last week in Las Vegas. And it will come as no surprise that AI, voice assistants, robots and 5G technology dominated the landscape. The event was also once again littered with gadget-rich tech such as high-profile laptops, 8K TVs, foldable phones, wearables and smart products. 

It’s clear we are now fully immersed in the age of smart everything, so if your product is not connected or doesn’t have voice enablement, you’re in big trouble. Case in point — there is even an intelligent toilet called Numi 2.0.

But while CES remains a great forum for consumer tech and gadgets, what exactly does it mean for businesses?

You Might Just Have to Drive After All

One of the bigger reality checks CES provided this year came in the realization that we are unlikely to see Level 4 autonomous cars by 2020 as previously boasted at CES 2017.

Car manufacturers are now realizing that attaining Level 4 and 5 autonomous driving is not as easy as they once thought. Until AI and sensors become reliable enough to consistently handle driving scenarios better than humans, we’ll be behind the wheel driving our cars for some time.

California now has 55 companies with self-driving car permits, the most in the nation. The number of autonomous vehicle issues, totaled to be 38 incidents between 2014 and 2018, is relatively low. However, each incident creates a backlash for autonomous automakers, typically resulting in auto companies investing large amounts of R&D funds to accelerate research.

For instance, in early 2018 a woman died after being struck by an Uber self-driving car in Tempe, Ariz. Following the incident, Uber invested $150 million in a new Toronto-based autonomous engineering center, which followed a previous $500 million investment from Toyota to jointly work on self-driving cars. 

Automakers in attendance at CES 2019 instead shifted their focus to Advanced Drive Assistance Systems (ADAS), which refers to the collection of assistive driving capabilities like adaptive cruise control, automatic braking and lane assist that have become fairly mainstream in today’s vehicles. This is a win-win: cars become safer and drivers are assisted by the technology, not replaced by it.

But for companies like NVIDIA, which has been promoting its Autopilot system, this is a big shift into a crowed space already dominated by players such as Mobileye, which is now part of Intel. 

Business models that were anticipating monetizing autonomous capabilities may need to revise their strategy.  

The autonomous car example is an even broader reality check for AI in general, to make sure the technology is in sync with the promise. AI has taken over 50 years to get to this point for a reason and in some regards is still very much in its infancy in terms of reaching its full potential.

Related Article: Connected Car Experiences in 2019: Exploring the Possibilities

AI Moves From Creepy to Practical

With more than 60 AI companies exhibiting at CES this year, many of the consumer AI showcases can leave you feeling as if it’s gone too far, is an invasion of privacy and is downright creepy.

However big players like IBM are focused on commercial and enterprise use cases for AI that are actually having an impact on business and society. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty did a great job showcasing how these technology advancements are actually changing the way businesses operate in her keynote address. Rometty highlighted the data that lies at the core of digital transformation. Data is our most precious natural resource and despite us producing 2.5 trillion bytes of data today, less than 1 percent of the data that is emitted is actually analyzed. There's the opportunity.

Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta shared insights on how data and AI is changing the way the company operates. In 2010, Delta had 5,600 flight cancellations due to maintenance issues. On average, that’s over 15 cancellations per day. Fast forward to 2018 and it had only 55 cancellations and 251 consecutive days without a cancellation — a 99 percent reduction in flight cancellations. What happened? The transformation focused on getting the foundation right: gathering data, processing data and building predictive maintenance models to drive process improvements.

Delta is also using AI to enhance the customer experience. Delta was the first to release facial recognition biometric technology at the gate to allow travelers to check in at the self-service kiosks, drop checked baggage, identify at the TSA checkpoint and directly board the flight without a ticket, passport or other paperwork — just your face. A completely touchless experience and expediting boarding of flights by over nine minutes.

Related Article: Is Your Data Fit for the AI Revolution?

Blockchain Makes Eating Safe Again

Blockchain is moving from financial markets to food safety. Walmart, the largest grocer in the US with 11,0000 stores providing food to more 160 million customers each week, recently launched a blockchain initiative to gain transparency in its food supply chain.

About 30 percent of our food supply is wasted on an annual basis. A big driver of wastage are food recalls. There were 1,928 food recalls in 2018 and 3,609 in 2017. Given the inability to isolate the source of recalled products with certainty, most recalls result in throwing large supplies of food in the dump. Walmart aimed to change this. 

According to Charles Redfield, EVP of Food, Walmart needed trusted transparency through its supply chain. It needed chain of custody to understand how to trace a food item from the shelf back to the farm. That exercise would take over seven days to complete, which is inconceivable in today’s digital age. Using blockchain, it is now able to get this answer in 2.2 seconds.

For Walmart, it meant getting 2,600 suppliers on the platform. And in many cases the suppliers are sharing this platform with other retailers, even if they’re competitors. The platform allows capturing real-time data at every point of the food supply chain on every single product and will greatly enhance consumer safety and reduce food waste.

Related Article: Blockchain Will Stall Until it Finds its Killer App

Mindfulness = Productivity?

If the CES gadget buzz makes your head spin, you may need to take a break with BrainTap. This year, CES attendees were treated to chairs and headsets that covered their eyes and ears and played a special sound and neuro-algorithm to sync brainwaves to induce deep relaxation. 

BrainTap is a mind-development tool designed to help people de-stress while achieving physical, mental and emotional balance. It’s the next generation of mindfulness apps, taking the user through meditative brain-wave states without the user having to actively participate. The “mindfulness” industry generated $1.2 billion in revenue last year and has attracted $260 million in investments since 2012.

This could create positive health and productivity benefits for businesses. Aetna recently invested in a series of mindfulness programs. It reported that employee annual productivity rose by about $3,000 after participating in the program.

Mindfulness mediation has been a staple of progressive organizations such as Google, Apple and Nike for many years. These companies have learned that a highly stressed employee costs the company an extra $2,000 per year in healthcare, when compared to their less-stressed peers.

Related Article: How to Escape the Productivity Paradox

5G May Change Everything ... But Not Just Yet

One of the more anticipated topics at CES was the launch of 5G technology, which was highlighted by numerous vendors like Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, Samsung and SK Telecom.

However, the lack of 5G demonstrations and “wow” moments were noticeably missing in favor of keynote gadgetry and promises. One exception was the relatively impactful 5G demonstration of Skyward.io’s remote drone flight, which took place in Los Angeles while being controlled from the keynote stage in Las Vegas. Nothing else was that memorable.

Verizon probably had the most thunder as it announced the first 5G network availability in the US. According to Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon, 5G will change everything. 5G will bring eight new “currencies,” including: increasing speeds to 10 Gbps; reducing latency to 5 milliseconds end to end; improving reliability to 99.999 percent; reducing energy consumption; supporting mobile connections up to 500 kilometers per hour; and allowing device densities up to 1 million devices per kilometer.

All of this will certainly change the face of mobile computing, but current estimates don’t expect widespread 4G replacements in the US until 2020. So the big news at CES is that while 5G will change everything, for now it’s just a potential.

Related Article: What Is 5G and How Will it Work?

Making Sense of It All

The bottom line for businesses? Come to CES and enjoy all the tech, but cut through the haze and spend some time with the vendors who are pioneering the future by applying the tech of today to improve businesses and society for tomorrow.