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Most folks go to Las Vegas to gamble. Others go to party, get married, or see Cher. I visited Vegas last week to check out a fully functional A.I.-enabled laundry folding machine.
I speak, of course, of the FoldiMate — a real thing, Ms. Kondo — perhaps the most compassionate of the shiny objects I fondled so you didn’t have to at the 52nd annual Consumer Electronics Show, aka CES 2019. For those who don’t know, CES is the enormous goat rodeo that every January finds some 180,000 international nerd pilgrims descending on Sin City to ooh and occasionally aah over a future-focused buffet of autonomous vehicles, augmented reality doodads, drones, transparent TVs, “teledildonic” sex toys, voice-activated bonbons, 5G vaporware, and, last and most certainly least, the obligatory A.I.-enabled laundry folding machine.
As the hordes arrived and deployed, some 4,500 exhibitors spent four full days trotting out their latest bells and whistles across nearly 3 million square feet of exhibit space in a convention center the size of a federal prison. The CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the organization that assembles this boondoggle, informed us that “CES showcases the power of innovation to solve global problems and improve lives around the world,” which made it “the most inspirational week of the year.” Perhaps, but I was far more swayed by the media company CEO who told me that the true purpose of CES is “to demonstrate that WALL-E was a documentary.”
And sure enough, there was plenty of “transformative tech” on view, pointing toward a laudable “smarter future” that would engender lots more “smart” cities and “smart” homes, the latter apparently exemplified by the afore-noted folding machine and intriguing new “intelligent” toilets from Kohler and Toto (though the nature of their intelligence was never entirely clear, making them seem more like battery-operated bidets). There were also a lot of depressingly familiar variations on a theme: a robot chore-whore that schleps your bags while you shop, a robot to cuddle when you’re lonely, a robot vending machine to bake on-demand individual loaves of bread when you’re hungry, etc. Not everything required the companionship of a robot: Many flocked to the YO Home Sperm Test, which gamified the fertility question by allowing users to rank their swimmers against a worldwide database of other dudes.
The cumulative effect of cool futuristic stuff in a vast and poorly lit Las Vegas convention center is that it’s instantly rendered not that cool, useful, or especially transformative.
Yes, the future looked smart. Our homes and our cities were going to graduate school. It was only a matter of time before the robots became self-aware and sent a muscled monosyllabic Austrian to destroy us.
I could tell you a lot more about all the cool futuristic stuff I saw at CES, but this isn’t a tech site. That’s why god invented the internet. And the sad truth, IMHO, is that the cumulative effect of seeing so much cool futuristic stuff in a vast and poorly lit Las Vegas convention center is that it’s instantly rendered not that cool, useful, or especially transformative. If you asked me to boil it down, I’d say the writer William Gibson was right when he said the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.
In other words, circa 2019, for every BMW already capable of driving itself, for every virtual assistant that will obediently serve you or service you without asking for health insurance and summer Fridays, you still have to shuffle in an hour-long line for a latte at an understaffed, app-free hotel Starbucks or sweat in the 100-person-deep queue for a cab at the Venetian or squander an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard just to go three miles, no matter who’s driving the vehicle.
The problem with events that predict a perfect future is that they inevitably remind us how lame the present still remains. Like, say, the fact that you will still have to fly commercial and experience the soul-sucking squalor of modern air travel and — this week at least — look into the sad eyes of a TSA employee not getting paid to do his horrible job (a job that will sooner or later be handled by a machine). Or that you will be awoken from uneasy dreams at 3:47 the night before your flight by the howl of a raging car alarm.
A car alarm! At the 2019 CES, no less. And no one seemingly capable of making it stop. So much for the smart city. I’m all for the power of innovation to solve global problems and improve lives around the world, but maybe before we pass go and head straight to science fiction, we could bottle some of the brainpower at CES and spend a little more time encouraging technologists to solve quotidian problems like, say, the fact that car alarms, which alarm exactly no one, still exist.
As I lay sleepless in the city that actually never sleeps, this lowing sounded to me like the grief-stricken wail of a future that might never arrive. Philip K. Dick famously asked: Do androids dream of electric sheep? (My answer: Not if we don’t make car alarms obsolete, they won’t.) Did anyone care? Surely others would join me in a jihad against the enduring tyranny of this outmoded technology. Frustrated, I texted Colin McConnell, senior vice president and chief brand officer at Prudential, the 144-year-old insurance company, in search of some justification for why car alarms still exist at all in an age of smart locks, machine learning, and Mensa toilets. “Look, they wouldn’t be giving rebates if alarms didn’t have some kind of effect,” McConnell responded with an audible sigh. “We know it’s a joke. But on the margins, they’re still a deterrent. And they give owners peace of mind.”
So there you have it. The status quo triumphs again.
The problem with events that predict a perfect future is that they inevitably remind us how lame the present remains.
As I packed for the airport, that rogue car alarm still bleating, I realized that CES perfectly illustrates Peter Thiel’s infamous “we wanted flying cars but instead got 140 characters” lament. We surely live in interesting times, but we seem forever trapped between a shimmering vision of tomorrow and the galling verities of today. This undying tug-of-war between the notional utopia we know is coming and our current dystopian reality can create some very unpleasant tension. Why should anyone give a shit about a laundry folding machine when we can’t even get rid of the car alarm? How can we square so much imagination with so little impact?
Will the intelligence part of A.I. ever catch up to the artificial part?
What’s still unclear, and never discussed at a place like CES (maybe because it would be even more depressing than measuring your fertility against that of some dude in Denver), is the likely impact of mass automation on the job market, the mass unrest that will follow, or whether those inevitable flying cars will really solve global problems and improve lives — or make things even worse. (Get ready for flying-car alarms.)
Lest we forget, once upon a time, social media was going to empower people to bring down dictators. We know how that tech fever dream turned out. I’ll fold my own laundry for now, thank you very much.