CES 2021: BABY, IT'S A WILD WORLD!
Business Traveler|April/May 2021
The biggest tech show on earth sidestepped the pandemic this year to present the long and short view of a hopeful future
LARK GOULD

The big talk at the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show was not smartphones or the next big camera or drone – although those products and innovations were in abundant supply. No, the big talk this year was survival – getting the world immunized and healed and making sure that big tech does not become the big monster of our nightmares, or Hollywood’s version of our nightmares.

Around every (virtual) corner was a new concept for safe face masks, and new ways to execute room and space sanitization, not to mention new visions in touchless technology and robotic friends. The world took a detour this year and CES was its destination.

In 2020, the worldwide technology show pulled together some 171,268 attendants, including 4,419 people exhibiting and funneled them through what is, at best, a snakelike progression of booths and star-paneled sessions across some half dozen megaresorts in Las Vegas.

But in 2021, CES was, for the first time in its 54 years, not in Las Vegas.

Rather, it was everywhere as the conference’s first virtual event. That meant attendees could actually get a comfortable front row seat to all the plenaries and panels and wander virtual showrooms full of stuff. What it also meant, however, was the impossibility of feeling, touching, seeing the actual products or dropping in for spontaneous discussions with the teams.

Still, the most top-of-mind buzz was around managing the pandemic – and a topic given new oomph in day-to-day considerations due to advances in all manner of consumer technology and innovation. As a chaotic vaccination system rolls out with new strains and mutations of the coronavirus coming from behind, talk also turned to where we are in human history, what’s ahead for us, and how we can optimize our time in the present at home.

PROMETHEUS UNBOUND

“I basically look at advances in technology through what I call Promethean moments,” said Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer prize winning author and commentator at The New York Times.

“Prometheus was a Greek god who basically stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans to develop civilization,” Friedman explained. “I am thinking of three great Promethean leaps forward: the printing press, the Industrial Revolution, and the one we're going through right now. This promising moment is not about a single invention, not a printing press or a combustion engine. It's actually three simultaneous accelerations, and what I call the market, Mother Nature, and Moore's Law. Technology, globalization and climate change are all three accelerating in a nonlinear fashion in what I would argue is fast, fused and deep, and it's really forcing us to change everything, including how we govern ourselves.”

Friedman spoke with Amnon Shashua, president and CEO of Mobileye, in a session that made the two appear in the same room though they were 6,000 miles apart. Jerusalem-based Mobileye is a subsidiary of Intel working to develop a vision-based self-driving car and advanced driver-assistance systems. The talk also emphasized the advancements in Artificial Intelligence that now govern everything from complex transportation systems to the simplest children’s toys.

“The challenge of COVID-19 is that we're not up against another country, another human adversary,” added Friedman. “We're up against Mother Nature, and who does Mother Nature reward in these kinds of moments of change? Not the smartest, actually, not the strongest, but the most adaptive – and that's been the challenge here and going forward.”

HUMAN FIRST

Indeed, Molly Battin, vice president of marketing for Delta Air Lines, noted during a panel that the pandemic gave the airline a once-ina-century chance to refit its fleet for added technological conveniences and “personal touch” opportunities.

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