What Happened in Vegas: Highlights from CES

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As part of the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD) continuing mission to help directors understand disruptive technologies and trends, I joined more than 175,000 attendees at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. My team was doing a little reconnaissance work on your behalf. NACD will host a director-focused, member-exclusive Technology Symposium this July, and we wanted to get an advanced look at the most pressing governance implications of new technology. 

After three days of experiencing more than 3,800 vendors, you start to see past the shine of the latest gadgets and understand how the technology that underpins these products is poised to change the world. How those technologies are leveraged by companies is key to understanding the future of disruption, and as we discussed at last year’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit, convergence is the order of the day.

Voice and Motion-Enabled Artificial Intelligence (AI) Are Here to Stay

Whirlpool

A booth showcased one of many partnerships between Amazon and consumer products companies, including Whirlpool.

From controlling the radio volume with a wave of your hand to voice-controlled appliances, AI was everywhere. In fact, the most talked-about company at CES this year didn’t even have a booth. The Amazon logo appeared on products ranging from innovations by Whirlpool to debuting devices from smaller start-ups.

Why? Alexa, Amazon’s AI assistant, was ubiquitous on the show floor.

Alexa is leading the way in enhancing consumer products that implement voice-enabled technology. It is anticipated that Alexa will soon be programmed to power and interact with everything from your toaster to your Toyota.

It became apparent at CES that the future of voice-enabled AI is a person’s ability to speak naturally and rely on the computer to accurately transcribe information. This has significant impact for everyone from office workers to doctors who could rely on the technology to dictate notes to medical records.

John Hotta, a director in the healthcare space and NACD Board Leadership Fellow, was also on hand at CES. “Innovations in voice-activated technology also have huge implications for products, services, and the nature of work, as smart speakerphones or personal assistants such as Google Home or Amazon Dot replace direct user interface with a computer,” Hotta said.

Computer, You Can Drive My Car

CES exhibitors demonstrated the growing sophistication of autonomous vehicle technology. Last year Ford Motor Company CEO Mark Fields promised to turn the automaker from a car company to a mobility company. That strategy was on full display as Ford partnered with San Francisco-based start-up Chariot to show off one of its autonomous mini-buses, a vehicle that Ford hopes will “reinvent mass transit for commuters, companies, and fun-seekers with reliable and affordable service.”

Cloud

A wealth of connected, autonomous vehicles were on display.

Autonomous vehicles also buzzed high above the heads of CES attendees. As drone technology continues to evolve for both commercial and industrial use, autonomous vehicle technology is being applied to those vehicles as well. In a convergence of these trends, Mercedes exhibited a fully autonomous delivery vehicle equipped with two roof-mounted drones that facilitate package delivery from the van to the doorstep.

Another trend emerged at CES: the use of autonomous vehicles as a tool for vehicle safety. Thanks to the convergence of AI and the Internet of Things (IoT), vehicle-to-vehicle technology has enabled cars to talk to their passengers and to other vehicles on the road. As attendees at the 2016 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit may remember, Chris Gerdes, head of innovation at the Department of the Transportation (DOT), discussed how DOT is piloting this technology in cities across the U.S. to slash traffic fatalities, and nearly every major automaker is now getting in on the act. Hyundai and Cisco announced a partnership to leverage IoT technology to improve safety and improve congestion by connecting vehicles to municipal infrastructure.

Governance Implications

Collaboration is Key

Logos

Consumer products and technology companies are forging essential partnerships.

As technology becomes more ubiquitous and innovation becomes decentralized, companies are realizing they can’t go it alone. Consumer products companies are linking up with leading technology companies to build resilience to innovation. In addition to the proliferation of Alexa-linked products, Honda Motor Co. has teamed up with VISA to enable vehicle-based mobile payment systems that allow passengers to conduct transactions without leaving their cars. Apparel companies like Tory Burch and Fossil—companies that seem more at home at New York Fashion Week than at CES—also had large booths touting their new lines of wearables. And finally, in-house labs at big brands like Whirlpool are partnering with crowd-funding platforms like IndieGogo to launch new products. Like the auto companies profiled above, this is another example of convergence that directors would be wise to anticipate.

Private Eyes Are Watching You

The act of welcoming devices into our workplaces and homes that listen and watch our every move could revolutionize the way we live and work—and opens us to unprecedented privacy and security concerns. Coupled with a proliferation of smart products aimed specifically at tweens and children, smart devices present a whole host of liability issues that technology, legal, and regulatory experts are just starting to grapple with.

Amazon’s Alexa and Mattel have already made news for the unintended consequences of giving children access to this kind of technology. Additionally, U.S. courts are considering the legal implications of using recordings from these devices as evidence. One such case pits Amazon against prosecutors in who believe that data from an Amazon Echo might be key in solving a murder case.

In this rapidly evolving climate, directors should be asking questions about whether or not security is being integrated into product development now and in the future—from research and development, to plant upgrades, to policies that allow employees to use their own smart devices for work.

The Future of the Workforce

Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and a 2016 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit speaker, recently said, “Technology will surely create jobs. But virtually none of the people displaced will have the training for them.” The changing nature of the global economy threatens to make some American jobs obsolete. If CES made one point clear, it’s that the current concern over the decline in manufacturing and coal jobs pales in comparison to the potential changes that will come with widespread automation of jobs.

Car

Volkswagen exhibits its electric, autonomous I.D. concept car.

Remember the self-driving delivery van with the automated drones that deliver packages mentioned above? Think about that technology and then look at this interactive map of the top jobs by state. Last August, Uber Technologies acquired Otto, a self-driving truck company, further showing how 1.7 million middle-class jobs could disappear in short order. The American economy is facing a potential employment crisis the likes of which may be unprecedented.

It’s not just delivery drivers who are in danger. As Jane Fraser, CEO of Citigroup’s Latin America business said at Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women Summit in October, “we are expecting 500 billion objects to become connected to the internet and this automation is going to hollow out middle and working class jobs.”

This shift has huge implications for the American economy and its ability to compete on a global scale. Consider, for instance, that automated delivery of packages is only helpful if your company has a customer base that can afford to spend money on products. A recent report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers lays out the dual challenges of educating a workforce that is ready for the jobs of the future, and the uphill battle of transitioning to an AI-based economy. This report is great reading for directors as they consider the role of the corporation in society, and could help the board shape individual company strategy in critical areas like innovation, talent development, and long-term value creation.

You can see, hear, and learn more about these trends at the 2017 Global Board Leader’s Summit. Stay tuned for information about our new director-focused, curated tour of the 2018 CES show next January.

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