First Click: The quietest story of CES is also the biggest

January 7th, 2016


Here’s the quietest story at CES: suddenly everything can move itself around without any humans involved.

Self-driving cars might be the flashy future story that lands on the local news, but look a tick smaller and hey — the dream is already here. The drone revolution was already about aircraft that can stabilize themselves with no user input, but this year the best new drones have computer vision systems that can sense their environment and navigate a path while avoiding obstacles autonomously. Intel is showing off robots with RealSense cameras that can wander around your house and recognize different people. And yes, the cars are getting ever and ever closer to eliminating the steering wheel and basically becoming gigantic rolling movie theaters.

It’s all the same idea — computers have gotten so small and so powerful that they can move an object around in reality as well or better than a human — and it’s insanely powerful if you imagine the consequences far down the line.

Just consider: the fundamental defining capability of the internet is that it reduces the cost and time of transferring information to zero and instant. When I was a kid, you had to deposit money in a bank by collecting paper in the form of checks or cash and physically take that paper to a bank teller. The internet means that I haven’t been to an actual bank in over a year; the information is just transferred instantly. The essential experience of music and movies used to be purchasing physical media and transferring it from playback device to playback device, but now we just use Spotify and YouTube. Information goes everywhere instantly for zero cost, no humans involved.

So what happens when the robots reduce the cost and time of moving physical objects to not a lot and pretty fast? When a huge variety of autonomous vehicles in every shape and size from tiny drone to semi truck can be sent off to deliver things without having to slow down or take naps or feel inconvenienced? What does an already globalized culture look like when it’s not just information that can travel instantly, but actual things that can spread across the city and state and world faster and cheaper than ever?

We already know some answers: software-driven advances in logistics and warehousing are behind seemingly-simple things like Amazon’s ultrafast shipping, and services like Instacart and Uber have taught users to expect real-world results from pushing a smartphone button — even if they’re filling in the gaps with other humans for now. The goal is to automate everything, and the first step is teaching the machines to move around.

The machines are fast learners, it turns out. What happens when they have nothing left to learn?

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Robot of the day

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