CES 2021: Masks of the Future and Robots that Love You

Believe it or not, we’re going to talk about something other than politics today. CES was this week!

The Consumer Electronics Show is usually a fun, exhausting, 3 days in Las Vegas. This year, obviously, it was a fun, exhausting, 3 days on your couch. And to be honest, we kind of like these virtual conferences. Back in March, I talked about the wave of cancellations, as SXSW (then Facebook, then everyone else) closed the conference-center doors one by one and moved everything online.

It seemed strange and almost heartbreaking to lose the in-person conferences. Lanyards everywhere lay forlorn.

Now, 10 months on, attending events from home is starting to feel like the natural order of things. We’ve all come up with ways to make ourselves more efficient and comfortable, less lonely and less at risk, all while combining the personal, professional and the, well, everything.

It all happens at home now.

The phrase “new normal” has been used to oblivion but it’s difficult to know what else to call this sea change. We are accustomed, now, to watching concerts in our pajamas and celebrating birthdays on Zoom. And we’ll continue to want contactless delivery and masks. We’ll hesitate to shake hands.

We might continue to feel isolated.

CES brought home the present, and the future, of technology in our lives.

The Outside

Delivery without delivery people was unsurprisingly a huge topic. Verizon and UPS are teaming up on retail delivery, and Walmart showed a cooling drone that’ll deliver your ice cream safe and solid.

LG fast-tracked development on a disinfecting robot, and the result is a 5 foot-tall, LIDAR-sensored germ-killer that’ll be used in restaurants and schools, hospitals and hotels. Or your home, probably, if you’re super wealthy.

And Razer, best known for unbelievably fancy gaming chairs, presented a super-high-tech N95 mask that not only protects people from your exhalations, but vents and auto-sterilizes.

These are advancements and offerings that may not have existed if not for the pandemic, and certainly not this quickly. Everything has sped up as our worlds have closed in.

The Inside

Samsung called its keynote presentation, “A Better Normal for All,” and talked about creating “more intimate and personalized” user experiences. They unveiled weirdly fancy refrigerators TVs that also get you in shape.

They also made my Roomba look like a comparative heap of junk by introducing us to robots that make your life better. I don’t mean things with robotic components; I mean things with arms. Things vaguely humanoid in shape that are designed to make a solitary life easier.

Things that “pick up objects of varying sizes, shapes and weights, becoming an extension of you and helping you with work around the house.”

Things that behave as companions and assistants, scheduling your day and reminding you to stretch. Or telling you you’ve been working too long. Through the whole presentation it felt like we were being given caregivers.

Or friends.

Vanguard Industries introduced Moflin, an AI pet with “emotional capabilities.” And I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t find it almost unbearably cute. Achingly cute. And it wouldn’t be, I’m sure, if we hadn’t spent the better part of a year isolated.

Each Moflin will develop an individual personality over time, depending on how it’s treated. The company says Moflin can be anxious, happy, excited, calm. Something that can respond to your emotions with its own, even if it’s filled with microchips and plastic, sounds pretty good when your world has compressed to an apartment.

Companies are creating artificial connections when we don’t have any. They’re bringing, at a price, helpers and companions. That’s not just good business; that’s critical for a global population that’s lost a lot of helpers and companions.

Isolated people need connections. If it’s just my stove telling me I’m doing a good job, well…better than nothing.

I’m not as cynical as I sound. It would be easy to take a dystopian view of Moflin and Handy, but I don’t want to do that. Because a child who can’t see her friends, but can pet a Moflin, will benefit. And an elderly person who can’t get the in-home care they need but can instruct Handy to help them, will benefit.

As the pandemic ends these things will shift, but not much.

We’re different people now, humans. And technology doesn’t tell us what we’ll want — it reflects who we are.

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Christian B. Anfinsen with

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