At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, at which more than a hundred and seventy thousand visitors variously gazed at, interacted with, and perhaps planned to buy thousands of future-tech items, a Connecticut company called iDevices created, on the crowded floor of the Sands Expo convention center, a medium-size room with a bed and a kitchen. The iDevices room was a prototype of a smart home; the company makes a wall switch that coördinates the various appliances in the home. At C.E.S., we were deep into the Internet of Things, the fully connected house run by, say, a smart refrigerator, which in the near future will tell you when to shop, how to cook, and when to pick up the children.
I was grateful for iDevices’ modest little room—it was a relatively quiet and enclosed space. It may not come entirely as a surprise to you to hear that C.E.S.—in fact, Las Vegas itself—is not a place for people who like to control and simplify the amount of noise and information hitting their bodies, brains, and souls at any given moment. As a first-time visitor to C.E.S., I was properly impressed, which is to say wiped out—overwhelmed by the show itself, which housed more than thirty-eight hundred exhibits in four vast convention spaces and several hotels. For whatever it’s worth, I was also overwhelmed by Las Vegas, which offers life at its most massified (at least during C.E.S.): a fretful throng passing through the mall-sized, bar-always-open hotel lobbies, or wandering up and down the vibrating Strip, or filing through the exhibits themselves, which are often hyper-aggressive. They buttonhole you with visual presentations on enormous screens, or celebrity pitchmen, or, more modestly, young spokespeople, some company employees, some Las Vegas types hired for the occasion, who look you in the eye and sell you the future.
Back in iDevices’ smart home, about fifteen of us conventioneers crowded into the room, which was tastefully furnished in beige and gray. In the dark, we listened to recorded sound of a young married couple. We were cast into the near future. Was it a future, I wondered, that would provide happiness?
“G’morning, hon,” the recorded man in the smart home, whom we shall call Robert, said.
“G’morning,” the woman—let’s call her Sylvia—said.
“Hey, Siri, good morning,” Robert said, which was followed by the sound of a coffee machine turning on.
Sylvia: “Alexa, set my home to seventy-two.”
After a pause, Robert, said, “Siri, we’re heading to work now” (sound of doors closing).
As the couple left the house, those of us who had sought refuge in the smart home couldn’t be blamed for imagining the day spent by Robert and Sylvia—a day in which these two eagerly used some of the actual products on display in the vast halls of Las Vegas’s convention centers.
In my imagining, Sylvia and Robert rode to work in their Intel-assisted, 5G-connected, autonomous BMW, both of them lounging in the back. Sylvia strapped the QardioArm to her upper arm; took her blood pressure, as she did every morning; and sent the results by smartphone to her husband, who was sitting next to her, and to her doctor. Robert watched the Knicks-Lakers game from the previous night on his HTC Vive virtual-reality headset. The BMW, in touch with the cloud, which collated information from other vehicles, advised them that there was black ice ahead on the road—the car slowed from thirty miles an hour (traffic was heavy) to twenty for the slick patch.
At her office, Sylvia, who works as a decorator, spent some time selecting Chinese fabrics and coffee tables for a client. She looked at the products in Singapore and in Guilin via the Internet and felt them by putting on Ericsson’s V.R. helmet and attaching to her right forefinger Tactai’s Dynamic Tactile Wave device, a black sheath that’s lined with electric sensors. As she extended her hand forward, watching an image of her finger in the frame, she “touched” the various objects in China, and felt, through electric sensations, the texture of linen, marble, and brass. They felt very much like the linen, marble, and brass objects in her office.
Sylvia loved her work and often thought that, if she had children and couldn’t afford full-time day care, she could monitor the baby from her office, at least for short periods of time. She could use a tiny iBaby robot, which looks friendly (like a round white rabbit with one eye protruding upward). iBaby would provide, on Sylvia’s smartphone, a continuous H.D. view of the child. She could also use the Snoo, made by Happiest Baby. The Snoo is a white bassinet that straps babies on their back so that they don’t turn on their stomach. The Snoo’s frame also has embedded sensors that pick up the sound of the baby crying, causing the bassinet to rock the baby back to sleep while emitting white noise, mimicking the womb. The baby would wear the TempTraq Wearable Wireless Thermometer, so that Sylvia could follow the baby’s temperature from a phone app. Sylvia wondered why women of her mother’s generation still made a fuss over child-raising when all these devices were now available to keep in touch with babies from a distance.
Robert, an industrial designer, didn’t much feel like working when he arrived at the office, so he spent more than two hours playing The Gallery: Call of the Starseed on his HTC Vive, before pulling himself together and switching to a daqri Augmented Reality smart helmet and walking through a half-constructed building that he was working on, checking the duct work and water pipes about to be installed above, to make sure nothing collided.
Robert also thought of having children and, before leaving home, stepped into his Spartan boxer briefs, made in Paris, in which silver fibers, embedded in the fabric, protected his genitals from radiation that might be emanating from the cell phone that he keeps in his front pocket. He imagined himself playing with a baby, and the baby being entertained by a Avatarmind’s iPal, a social robot, about three and a half feet tall, which waved its arms, told stories (at the moment, only in Chinese), and sang “Old MacDonald.” The robot would record his child’s growth pattern, taking pictures at various stages of the child’s development and recording his or her voice. Robert reflected on the fact that there would be no need for the messy space inside a garage or a closet in which his children’s growth would be recorded, as his was, by marking their height on a wall (“three feet, six inches!”).
“Hey, Siri, I’m home,” Robert, back from the office, said, and the lights went on for those of us left in the dark. Sylvia returned soon after.
Robert: “Hey, Siri, it’s happy hour.” (Pink lights go on.)
Sylvia: “Alexa, turn on the kitchen.”
Sylvia and Robert made dinner together, in their conventional oven. But they imagined things, too. They hoped to soon buy a Samsung Family Hub 2.0, a four-door refrigerator with a 21.5-inch screen on the upper-right door. On this screen, they could coördinate their lives, making to-do lists for everyone. They could link up the entire house’s appliances. By posting photographs and messages to the screen, they could eliminate the clutter of handwritten notes on odd bits of paper. (No more “I love you, Dad” in a childish scrawl.) They would enter the perishable groceries on the screen, and the Hub would advise them when the milk and vegetables were approaching expiration; three cameras on the inside of the door would continuously photograph everything in the refrigerator, and they could examine the contents by cell phone and tap on any item for instant reorder at FreshDirect. “Hi, Samsung,” they would say. “Open the recipe app,” and the refrigerator would tell them how to make, say, Black Magic Cake. “Preheat the oven to three hundred and fifty degrees,” the refrigerator would begin.
The only trouble, Sylvia thought, was that their smart home could be invaded by dreaded “Mirai” (or malware), and turned into a bot in someone’s botnet, in which case the family members would cede control of their lives to advanced technology. Sylvia dreaded this. But she was relieved when she heard about Securifi’s Almond 3, which monitors their smart-home monitors and repels invaders. She wondered who would monitor the monitor that monitors her smart home, but she let that thought slide as a problem that technology would solve in the future.
After dinner, Robert said, “Hey, Siri, party time.” (Flashing lights, as in a sixties club, appear on the walls.)
But Sylvia, who sounded tired, said, “I want to go to bed.”
So Robert said, “Siri, party’s over,” and the room was returned to darkness.
Slowly, we filed out into the brilliant white lights of endless exhibition space.