CES 2015: The Internet of Things is Here, and It May Even Be Useful

Forget the drones, 4K TVs and virtual reality headsets. This year's Consumer Electronics Show was dominated by devices and services that connect your world.

At last year's Consumer Electronics Show, the talk was about the "Internet of Things," in which every device is a smart device and they all communicate with you via the internet and your smartphone. And a few gadgets, such as an internet-connected Crock-Pot, attempted to deliver on that promise. This year, however, the Internet of Things (or the "Internet of Everything," depending on who you spoke to), was everywhere, with everything from smart ceiling fans to connected flower pots on display. And some of them actually went beyond the obvious gimmicks and were products you might actually want to own

Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association and author of "Digital Destiny," kicked things off with a pre-CES presentation highlighting the trends that he believes will shape our world over the next year and beyond.

For DuBravac, the future will be determined by what he calls the "5 Pillars of our Digital Destiny," which include ubiquitous computing, cheap digital storage, constant connectivity, proliferation of digital devices and the "sensorization" of technology. Those pillars have helped create the smartphone market, which is now bigger than the market for personal computers. But DuBravac sees it spawning an even bigger universe of products that serve what he calls the "Internet of Me," consisting of everything from internet-connected thermostats to smart toothbrushes. Within a few years, he says, the market for such products will reach 50 billion devices, compared to the current smartphone market of 2 billion units.

DuBravac sees a world in which communication among products and services becomes ubiquitous and beneficial, as tools like internet-connected toothbrushes automatically relay information to dentists. "It could mean that every dentist becomes a data scientist," he says. And sensors and connectivity can bring new life to old devices. One new product highlighted by Dubravac was the Roost, a normal-looking 9-volt battery that, when added to any smoke detector, turns it into an internet-connected device that can alert you anywhere when it senses smoke -- or when the battery is about to go dead.

The Internet of Things (or Everything or Me) so dominated CES that Samsung, which introduced a series of innovative TVs, appliances and more at its main press conference, devoted a second event to a rambling speech by CEO B.K. Yoon about IoT, where he pledged $100 million in investments in IoT-related companies. "The Internet of Things is absolutely amazing," Yoon said, while introducing devices such as a sleep monitor that could determine the best time to wake you in the morning based on your sleeping patterns, and relay that data to your smart lighting system or connected alarm app.

If you think IoT is a lot of hot air, CES still had plenty to offer, including one product quite literally based on hot air. Toyota was joined by futurist (and Big Think expert) Michio Kaku to show off the Mirai hydrogen-powered car. As previously announced, the fuel-cell vehicle will be available later this year in limited quantities. Kaku said we're about to enter a new age of hydrogen, "a non-polluting society, that's going to perhaps one day vanquish global warming." To get there, of course, we'll need not just more hydrogen-powered vehicles, but an efficient, ubiquitous fueling network. That's why Toyota's other announcement, that it's granting royalty-free access to its collection of 5,680 hydrogen-related patents, may have been more important than any news about the car itself. Kaku's "hydrogen society" may not be around the corner -- Toyota only expects to sell about 700 Mirais this year -- but the patent release could spur other companies to follow suit and develop more hydrogen-powered vehicles and the network required to keep them running.

CES also featured plenty of more "traditional" gadgets, including stunning ultra high-definition TVs from the likes of Sony, LG and Samsung; tablets, PCs and smartphones from companies large and small; and audio products ranging from Crosley's retro turntables to LG's total-home speaker system. Trying to differentiate themselves from the streaming audio pack, both Sony and rocker Neil Young's Pono Music showed off high-resolution portable audio players, with Sony's new Walkman ZX2 going for $1,200, while Young's Pono Player sells for a more modest $400. Young boasted that his player -- which raised over $6 million in a Kickstarter campaign last year --  is "the same as an iPod, except that it sounds like God."

Still, even with the audio and video products, the self-driving cars, the drones, the 3D printers, and the virtual-reality headsets, CES 2015 will inevitably be remembered for the devices and technology that connect everything to everything else, whether they're smart watches, fitness trackers, smoke detectors, smart vents or tea kettles. This, according to DuBravac, is one reason you may not see a single hot product that dominates CES the way certain devices did in the past. While smartphones and HDTVs are mass-market products, connected-home gadgets serve much smaller groups. DuBravac calls this "fragmented innovation," and says it will lead to more widespread adoption of new technologies in products targeting narrower groups of consumers. "There is a greater array of innovation," he says.

However, the bigger question may be, do we really need internet-connected tennis rackets, baby bottles or batteries? That's really up to the marketplace, which is why, as always, plenty of the products shown at CES this year may never turn up on Amazon or in your local Best Buy. DuBravac points out that, just because something can be digitized and shared, doesn't necessarily mean it should be. "We have for a long time come to CES to see what's technologically possible, what's technologically feasible." he says. "But we’re now shifting and the focus is on what is technologically meaningful. Should we digitize it? How should we use it?"

Image Credits: Photos 1-3: Meg Marco; Photos 4-5: Marc Perton

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.