CES Preview: We Still Need Humans

By Joshua Seidemann, Vice President of Policy, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

January 3, 2019

This is the time of year when my inbox endures a bombardment of emails relating to CES (Consumer Electronics Show, held annually in Las Vegas). So far this month, I have: turned down an offer for a free brain scan; made an appointment to visit with a personal assistant robot; been reminded that not every product at CES is connected (acoustic headphones) and started the process of scheduling three days across scattered venues to learn more about how connected tech can serve rural health care, education and commercial development. But for all the technical wonderment of CES, there remains an underlying axiom: we still need humans.

An article last month in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) describes emotional awareness as the next step for artificial intelligence. “Affective AI” is intended to read facial expressions, vocal intonations and other indicators of mood, something that current AI cannot do. The technology is anticipated to assist across many applications, including mental health interventions, elder care and assisting individuals on the Asperger’s spectrum who might contend with alexithymia (difficulty identifying and describing emotions). Coupled with cameras, voice recorders and other sensors, affective AI could intervene when it senses depression by either encouraging or contacting someone to intervene. For the elderly, the technology could be used to discern discomfort or pain, or even loneliness, and encourage or activate contact to a physician or friend.  

Robots are already being used to assist elder care. But, they rely primarily on active inputs from their users, or an absence of an input – say, a refrigerator door that was not opened, or a sink unused for too many hours. Affective AI ups the ante by reading so-called silent indicators and then acting upon them.

Robots won’t replace us. Even while WSJ columnist Christopher Mims observes that “in the future, the top jobs are robot engineer and elder care-giver,” he also qualifies that, “Jobs requiring warmth and compassion will likely still be filled by humans, because the people being cared for don’t want robots in that role.”

Watch this space next week for reports from CES. I expect it will include accounts of AI, VR and AR. But I will also have my eyes open for the sort of technology that works best when blended with human interaction.