Out of crisis comes opportunity

Lebone Mano
By Lebone Mano, junior journalist
Johannesburg, 27 May 2021

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the first to be held since the pandemic hit, shows how technology is being used to assist in our new ways of working and living.

The first CES was held at the Hilton and Americana hotels over four days in 1967, and has been held every year since then. It has seen products such as the first home VCR (1970), the CD player (1981) and Apple’s Newton MessagePad (1992) being unveiled.

This year’s event, held online for the first time, focussed on 5G, digital transformation, autonomous vehicles and smart cities. According to the Consumer Technology Association’s VP Steve Koenig, the pandemic has seen tech innovators providing myriad solutions. “When the economy is at its worst, we tend to see some of our best innovations.

During the US’ 2008/09 financial crisis, we saw the rise of cloud computing and ridesharing.” According to an April 2020 McKinsey study, some of the technologies gaining momentum during the pandemic include AI/ML, cloud computing, natural language processing and RPA.

“Everything seems to be happening with cloud today. It’s underpinning innovation in this decade so digital transformation is not the exclusive domain of global enterprises. Small businesses such as gyms have survived the pandemic by transforming their core value proposition. When we couldn’t go to the gym, they helped us stay aligned to our fitness goals through online fitness classes or nutritional seminars,” said Koenig.

“Those of you who are parents can speak volumes on technology’s impact during this time (on education). Thank goodness for the digital tools keeping students in front of their teachers…it’s clear that digital transformation has come to the rescue of many businesses and industries.”

Intelligence of Things

Koenig added that the emergence of a new kind of IoT, the ‘Intelligence of Things’, will see AI and ML underpin technology across industries.

Covid’s impact on the workforce has also driven RPA adoption. According to Gartner, it will become a $2 billion industry this year. Koenig said the maturation of technologies such as natural language processing ‘are cementing voice as the next-generation human-machine interface to facilitate contactless interaction, for example’.

CTA’s research director Lesley Rohrbaugh, co-hosting the session with Koenig, said it was seeing continuing innovation in robotics, and robots are now conducting commercial tasks such as shelf -stocking and cleaning via UV radiation.

“Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve also seen growth in autonomous delivery systems such as drones and self-driving vehicles. Amazon’s robotic delivery vehicles fleet, Scout, has helped the company meet consumer demand during the pandemic. UPS teamed up with CVS (a pharmacy and online drug store) and drone delivery company Matternet to ensure medicine delivery for retirement villages.”

A study by the CTA in June 2020 found that over a quarter of US respondents are now more in favour of autonomous deliveries than before the pandemic.

What about 5G?

Koenig said that, to date, there are about 135 commercial 5G networks around the world, and while there hasn’t been uniform deployment, he expected it to be in widespread use globally by 2025.

A Qualcomm 5G study of some developed nations found that the investment into 5G increased by 11% from its 2019 forecast, with $260 billion spent collectively in R&D and capex, with China and the US leading respectively. The study said that 5G-related jobs will also grow over the next 15 years. Rohrbaugh said 5G was just one of the 'ingredients' that will support the infrastructure of smart cities.

“Some of the other key technologies in this space include network sensors, smart kiosks (which can provide navigation assistance) and data dashboards, which will give citizens access to up-to-the-minute data to monitor things such as public health conditions on smart devices.”

Rohrbaugh said ‘touchless’ technologies using voice recognition and motion sensors will be used to make workplaces safer. “More and more businesses are upgrading their facilities, adopting smart air filtration systems, UV sanitising lights and robotic cleaning in shared areas and spatial intelligence platforms where employees can use dashboards to see which areas in the office are occupied before they even leave their desk.”