CES 2020-1: Getting Ready for Some Ambient Intelligence

By Josh Seidemann, VP of Policy, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association

In an otherwise slow week, my office email was jammed daily with preview messages about CES (Consumer Electronics Show). Some were from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which hosts the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for vendors, technologists, analysts and buyers. But most were from vendors, or their PR reps, touting opportunities to visit their booths (spread across a half-dozen venues up and down the Strip) and learn more about everything from foldable phones to wearables to a smart coffee maker that features a touch screen large enough for gaming.

Every CES has its “wow” moment. And, every CES has its theme. Or, at least offers attendees enough dots whose connections can help develop a theme. This year, I identify three intersecting principles that I expect to define both the technology at CES (at least some it) and policy back here in DC: (1) Passive data collection; (2) Privacy; and, (3) 5G.

Ambient intelligence refers to technology that responds to people without their active input. In some respects, this may be no different than motion-sensitive lights or smart climate systems that trigger when someone enters the house. But there are more complicated and sophisticated applications. Consider interior flooring flooded with sensors that can detect gait and falls. It is envisioned as a tool to expand opportunities for the elderly to “age in place.” This is technology that will use passive data collection in a meaningful way. 

But passive data collection has its hazards, as well. Remember the so-called “eavesdropping Echo” that shared private conversations with a distribution list? It may well be that most of our household chatter is not classified – but it certainly can be considered confidential. And, the collection and storage capabilities of devices, and the constant transmission of data to the cloud, implicates weighty concerns about how we protect our information. Consider Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ explanation of why a search warrant is required for cell phones:

The storage capacity for cell phones has several interrelated consequences for privacy. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information – an address, a note, a prescription, a bank statement, a video – that reveal much more than previously possible. The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations and descriptions. The same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet. Third, the data on a phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier. A person might carry in his pocket a slip of paper reminding him to call Mr. Jones. He would not carry a record of all his communications with Mr. Jones for the past several months, as would routinely be kept on a phone.

Privacy and data security will be topical at CES, much the way it is front-and-center in state and Federal legislative and regulatory bodies.

Finally, 5G. There is little to no dispute among the experts that 5G requires fiber deep into the network. It is not a substitute for fiber; rather, it can be deployed effectively in rural regions only if the area is fiber rich. But it will project an image of what is possible as communications technology moves forward. And as we discuss “reasonable comparability” in terms of infrastructure and rates among rural and urban spaces, 5G can be an accessible example of the need to ensure potential divides do not emerge.

Watch this space next for more reports from CES.