On the Road to Damascus, By Way of Las Vegas
I signed up to visit the Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2020) earlier this month with great expectations. Based on the agenda, the Las Vegas Convention Center exhibit floor would showcase tons of technology while the numerous panel sessions would cover the most disparate subjects, from robots to artificial intelligence (AI) to virtual currencies. It would be a great opportunity to brush up on new technology trends and test my opinions about some of its most lofty promises. In the end, I got more than I bargained for.
On my first day, I hit the floor first, marveling at the many displays of forward-looking technology, some as far as 10 to 20 years away. One of the most imposing displays was the Hyundai-Uber driverless aero taxi full-size mockup shown in Figure 1. To impress the audience even more, the exhibitors had lined up a dozen flight simulator rigs. After a short wait in line, I was strapped to a flight simulator chair wearing an augmented reality (AR) headset. I soon found myself seated on the back of the aero taxi, flying over a futuristic city. The taxi driver seat, just to make the point clear, was empty, so I was up in the sky, rolling and tilting, riding an unmanned autonomous aero taxi!
The virtual flight ended after a few minutes. Wow, I thought, what lengths these guys go to sell a few plain cab rides with the improbable promise of a Star Wars-style future! In truth, I have been quite skeptical about unmanned autonomous driving, looking at it more as the automakers' vector outlining a technology path in which the journey, rather than the final destination, is the reward.
Drawing heavily from the autonomous driving example, a panel I attended went out of its way to emphasize the importance of synergy between humans and AI, described respectively as best at different things, hence, complementary. At the end of the session I asked one panelist if their pitch was a disallowment of the unmanned autonomous driving technology like the real-life Waymo robot taxi experiment happening right now in Phoenix, Arizona. The answer was less than crispy, as the person was unwilling to draw a conclusion that seemed to be inescapable given their thesis. That did not help change my skeptical mindset about autonomous driving.
According to Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm CEO, in 2020 the 5G infrastructure will be active in all the major US cities, while the newer phones are already 5G compliant. The bold claim is that 5G will go mainstream this year, bringing true IoT to the masses (see Figure 2).
Just as 4G enabled robust music streaming, 5G promises to do the same for video streaming, with all the content stored in the cloud. Uber was a 4G child. Who's going to be the equivalent when 5G becomes standard? For one thing, 5G will free the user from the constraints of small smartphone screens, enabling us to accommodate applications like AR via, say, smart eyeglasses.
I arrived early at the Las Vegas Convention Center, North Hall, Room N257, and was second in the queue at the entrance door for a session on transportation. In front of us was an airport-like metal detector gate that we would have to go through at the proper time. Strange, considering that access to the convention center was quite basic—I was allowed to walk in after showing my CES badge to the security guards. The pro next to me in line explained that these added security measures were justified by the presence of Elaine L. Chao, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and keynote speaker at our session. Nice, the plot thickens, I thought. Chao (Figure 3) gave a strong and enthusiastic pitch in favor of autonomous vehicles, explaining that they would advance traffic safety, benefit the environment, and bring back mobility to the disabled.
She announced "Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies: Automated Vehicles 4.0 (AV 4.0)", with the goal to advance safety, security, and quality of life in an increasing complex AV environment. This environment will include land- and air-based autonomous mobility, with drones performing tasks in agriculture, delivery, and for passengers (I obviously missed stages 1, 2, and 3!).
As if the Department of Transportation was not enough, the White House followed, with Michael Kratsios, U.S. CTO (Figure 4). (Of course, the country has a CTO!). He emphasized U.S. primacy in AI with continued leadership and R&D investment, workforce development for AI, regulatory guidance for innovation, and international engagement for ethical use of AI.
Here was the U.S. government, pledging to play a leading role in unmanned autonomous transportation and AI, perhaps comparable to the role it played with the internet and GPS. At this point reality started to sink in: AI, 5G, the U.S. government. Indeed, autonomous driving is not a quixotic dream, but a serious enterprise backed by nothing less than the U.S. government and the up and coming new generations of technologies. And that's how I found myself on the road to Damascus by way of Las Vegas. Confronted with overwhelming evidence, then and there I transformed from being a skeptic to a believer in autonomous driving. How is that for a day at CES 2020?