It's uncertain where personal technology is heading, but judging from CES, it smells

Our vulture spent a week in Las Vegas – here are his key takeaways

Column Every January in Las Vegas a few hundred thousand folks gather to learn about the latest innovations from an ever-broadening range of gadget makers, appliance manufacturers, automobile companies – and, these days, an ever-growing number of "wellness" purveyors.

Forty years ago, the Consumer Electronics Show launched as a televisions-and-stereos showroom for buyers; now that almost everything has some sort of digital interface, CES covers almost the entire range of manufactured products.

Where else can you find an app to measure the cognitive decline into dementia next to a new type of battery technology next to a drone-cum-glider capable of making a 100km flight? There's no rhyme or reason to any of it, no through-line beyond "it has some chips in it," nor any grand narrative to bring sense to it.

All of this plays out against the archetypal insta-city (Shenzhen may be bigger, but Las Vegas older and weirder), a town where gambling and commerce have become so intertwined it's become difficult to detect where the luxury shopping ends and the gaming tables begin.

That confusion feels like the real theme of this CES, exemplified by the keynote from Sony. Throughout a meandering presentation that highlighted many of the divisions of the sprawling giant, Sony CEO Kenichiro Yoshida talked up the pivotal role Sony plays with "creators," without ever landing a clear message on what Sony means for creatives, or how this relationship brings coherence to its product offerings.

Maybe quickly slapping a skin over ChatGPT and rushing into a very public demo wasn't the best idea?

A friend later pointed out that Sony announced an Apple Vision Pro competitor during the keynote - something I'd nearly forgotten amidst all the motherhood statements about the importance of creatives.

Presentations from Hyundai and Kia illustrated the nature of the confusion confronting these huge firms; Korea's biggest car maker revealed grand plans for a "hydrogen economy," while somehow neglecting to mention its electric vehicles are among the most-highly-praised on the market.

Meanwhile, Kia wants us all to adopt entirely new logistics standards and infrastructure – so that the carmarker can make it all more efficient - so long as we do it their way. In both cases, trillions of dollars of infrastructure investment (and a lot of political dealmaking) represent a significant barrier to the realisation of either of their dreams. For both, the whiff of monomania has them more excited than doing the right thing, right now.

The high water mark for confusion at this CES looks to have been set by Volkswagen, which touted ChatGPT integration with their in-car Ida voice assistant. Hilarity ensued. During the live demo, Ida was asked to render its opinion of the greatest automaker in the world. Everyone in the audience quickly learned that ChatGPT doesn't rate VW. Oops. Maybe quickly slapping a skin over ChatGPT and rushing into a very public demo wasn't the best idea?

The one company that seems to know what it is, what it's doing, and how to use technology to accelerate it into the future is the show's big sponsor: Walmart.

The world's largest retailer announced a new tie-up with Microsoft; Satya Nadella came on stage with Walmart CEO Doug McMillan to tout a deep integration of Azure and OpenAI. It has two key elements; the first of which has already been released in Walmart's iOS app. Its search box has become a conversational interface, so you can ask the app: "I am having an anniversary party next month, how should I prepare?" Generative AI will provide both suggestions and buying options, all available through the Walmart application. This looks to be the first real "search killer" spotted in the wild.

Nadella's long game looks increasingly like a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the AI-blind

Behind the scenes, Microsoft and Walmart are using AI and deep analytics to manage the entire Walmart supply chain - from each of their vendors all the way to a customer's home. Walmart reckons they can know exactly when you're going to need your next carton of milk, and will be able to make sure it's delivered (even placed into your refrigerator) so you never run out. It's a breathtaking vision of supply chain integration and management, enabled by artificial intelligence.

All of this would have been a significant bit of engineering; Microsoft and Walmart have clearly been working on this for most of the last year, and it means that Walmart now has capacities at least as great as its biggest competitor – Amazon – when it comes to supply chain management and customer fulfillment.

For Microsoft, it means the battle has been joined on two fronts: against Google for search, and against Amazon for retailing. Nadella's long game looks increasingly like a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the AI-blind.

Finally, my favourite gadget of this CES came from Japanese giant Sharp. Their Nara research lab has prototyped what's said to be a world-first "olfactory sensor" – a miniaturized spectrograph analyzing a sample of air, and using a trained AI model to match the sample to one of many known smells. Unlike sound and vision, we've never had that many sensors for smell, so this is quite a breakthrough. It's big (10cm x 8cm) but they have plans to shrink the unit and speed it up by parallelizing its design.

While Sharp imagines their first customers will be using it to measure the bouquet of wines, it has a wide range of applications in healthcare and well beyond, and could transform what we can sense about our environment. Amidst all of the confusion, it feels as though bloodhound Sharp has sniffed out a path forward. ®

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