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.

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

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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Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

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