The Sunday Independent - - TECHNOLOGY -

IMAG­INE a fu­ture where you are never truly alone. Even when your spouse is on a busi­ness trip or your chil­dren are away at sum­mer camp, you will al­ways have some­one (or some­thing) to talk to. In the morn­ing, you could ask the mi­crowave to heat up a bowl of oat­meal. In your car, you could tell your stereo to put on some ’90s mu­sic. And when you walk into the of­fice, you could ask your smart­phone, “What’s on my cal­en­dar to­day?”

This is in­creas­ingly the world that the tech in­dus­try is build­ing with a grow­ing port­fo­lio of de­vices that can re­act to voice com­mands – and that the com­pa­nies will be pitch­ing to you even more this year.

The fu­ture will be on dis­play next week at CES, a con­sumer elec­tron­ics trade show in Las Ve­gas that serves as a win­dow into the year’s hottest tech trends. Ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent vir­tual as­sis­tants will take cen­tre stage as the most im­por­tant tech topic, with com­pa­nies big and small ex­pected to show­case voice-con­trolled de­vices such as robot vac­u­ums, alarm clocks, re­frig­er­a­tors and car ac­ces­sories.

Most of these prod­ucts will be pow­ered by Ama­zon’s Alexa or Google As­sis­tant, the two most pop­u­lar ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent as­sis­tants, in­sid­ers said.

“AI will per­vade the show,” said Gary Shapiro, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Con­sumer Tech­nol­ogy As­so­ci­a­tion, which owns CES.

If this all sounds like a re­peat of last year, that’s be­cause much of it is. AI was 2018’s hottest tech trend, too. In other words, the tech in­dus­try is in a state of it­er­a­tion rather than mak­ing leaps and bounds with some­thing to­tally new.

Other tech trends that are pro­gress­ing in­clude the de­but this year of fifth-gen­er­a­tion cel­lu­lar net­works, known as 5G, which will sig­nif­i­cantly quicken mo­bile in­ter­net speeds. Cy­ber se­cu­rity prod­ucts for home net­works are also pro­lif­er­at­ing, an im­por­tant safe­guard now that con­sumers own so many de­vices that can con­nect to the in­ter­net.

But as is often the case, there will also be plenty of talk in the com­ing week about overly op­ti­mistic tech that you would do best to side­step for now.

That’s be­cause some of the most hyped tech­nolo­gies – es­pe­cially self-driv­ing cars – are so far from re­al­ity that you won’t see them in stores or deal­er­ships any time soon. Here’s what to watch and what to avoid.

Bat­tle of the Vir­tual As­sis­tants In 2015, Ama­zon birthed the Echo, the ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent speaker fea­tur­ing the vir­tual as­sis­tant known as Alexa.

A year later, Google re­sponded with Home, its smart speaker pow­ered by Google’s own dig­i­tal com­pan­ion called As­sis­tant.

Since then, in a bid to be­come your go-to dig­i­tal com­pan­ion, the two tech gi­ants have teamed up with mak­ers of de­vices like ther­mostats, door­bells, light bulbs and car ac­ces­sories to add their vir­tual as­sis­tants to them.

Google is ex­pected to be even more ag­gres­sive this year with its As­sis­tant. The com­pany will triple the size of its pres­ence at CES this year, sug­gest­ing it is likely to un­veil a large ar­ray of prod­ucts that work with As­sis­tant.

“We’re re­ally lean­ing into the As­sis­tant as the best way to get things done, help­ing you for lots of things as you go about your day,” said Nick Fox, a Google ex­ec­u­tive who over­sees As­sis­tant.

Ama­zon said it would also show­case a wide range of tech­nolo­gies next week that work with Alexa, as part of a vi­sion it calls “Alexa Ev­ery­where”. The com­pany’s goal is to ex­pand the reach of its vir­tual as­sis­tant into every part of peo­ple’s lives, in­clud­ing the kitchen, the liv­ing room, the of­fice and the car.

For you and me, here’s a cau­tion­ary note: Vir­tual as­sis­tants are still in their in­fancy and have many short­com­ings. We have to speak a very spe­cific com­mand to trig­ger a vir­tual as­sis­tant to con­trol a de­vice, like set­ting the tem­per­a­ture on a ther­mo­stat or turn­ing on a lamp. Those un­fa­mil­iar with the lingo may find the de­vices even more dif­fi­cult to use than press­ing a but­ton in­side an app.

“We still have to learn their lan­guage, and they have not learned our lan­guage,” said Frank Gil­lett, a tech an­a­lyst for For­rester, a tech­nol­ogy re­search com­pany.

Lost in the hype about vir­tual as­sis­tants is whether peo­ple truly want an om­nipresent com­pan­ion in­volved in their ev­ery­day tasks. Own­ers of smart speak­ers mostly sum­moned dig­i­tal as­sis­tants for ba­sic func­tions like lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, check­ing the weather and set­ting a timer, ac­cord­ing to re­search by Nielsen last year.

In an era of smart things, the wi-fi router is be­com­ing a big­ger tar­get for hack­ers, so ex­pect a flood of new equip­ment and soft­ware that of­fers pro­tec­tion by im­prov­ing your net­work se­cu­rity.

This year, the wire­less in­dus­try will be­gin a big up­grade to its in­fra­struc­ture. Phone car­ri­ers like AT&T and Ver­i­zon Wire­less say the 5G tech­nol­ogy will de­liver data at in­cred­i­bly fast speeds, al­low­ing peo­ple to down­load an en­tire movie in a few sec­onds.

In ad­di­tion to in­creas­ing smart­phone speeds, 5G will be im­por­tant for other types of de­vices, like ro­bots, self-driv­ing cars, drones and se­cu­rity cam­eras. The tech­nol­ogy is ex­pected to greatly re­duce la­tency, or the time it takes for de­vices to com­mu­ni­cate with one an­other.

And not many smart­phones will be com­pat­i­ble with 5G ini­tially. Some Chi­nese hand­set mak­ers and Sam­sung Elec­tron­ics have said they will re­lease their first 5G smart­phones this year. Ap­ple is not ex­pected to re­lease a 5G-com­pat­i­ble iPhone un­til 2020.

Vir­tual re­al­ity and self-driv­ing cars have been talked about a lot in re­cent years, and they will still be talked about this year. But these two tech­nolo­gies are still nascent or pre­ma­ture.

Over the past two years, tech com­pa­nies like Face­book’s Ocu­lus, HTC, Google and Sam­sung have flooded the mar­keted with VR head­sets and plenty of soft­ware and games. Yet peo­ple have not ex­actly em­braced the prod­ucts.

“The in­dus­try has been plagued by high-cost hard­ware, mo­tion sick­ness, a dearth of com­pelling con­tent and a gen­eral lack of con­sumer in­ter­est,” said Vic­to­ria Petrock, an an­a­lyst for the re­search firm eMar­keter, in a re­cent post.

Self-driv­ing cars are also still many years from be­com­ing main­stream.

Even though some com­pa­nies have per­mits to test au­tonomous cars in Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona and else­where, sev­eral of the lead­ers in the tech­nol­ogy – such as Al­pha­bet’s Waymo – have re­frained from com­mit­ting to a re­lease date for self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles.

“There’s go­ing to be a lot of noise about au­to­mo­tive tech­nol­ogy but noth­ing dis­tinct or spe­cific,” tech an­a­lyst Gil­lett said.

| The New York Times

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