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The Internet of Things That Won’t Shut Up

At this year’s CES, practically every device is a voice-control device.

CES—which we’re not allowed to call the Consumer Electronics Show anymore—is a festival of superfluity. Its halls are decked with useless crap no human needs and most don’t even want. It’s a male-dominated monument of late capitalism, the unofficial museum of the Internet of Shit. It’s no wonder, then, that the gadgets that actually change our lives—the iPod, the iPhone, the Amazon Echo—tend to debut elsewhere. (Apple skips the conference altogether.) And many of those that conquer CES go on to flop with consumers, if they’re released at all.

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Still, the conference, which takes place this week in Las Vegas, is not without value, which is why it continues to draw many of the world’s largest companies, hordes of startups, and some 170,000 visitors each year. Besides being a marketing and networking mecca, it’s a chance to take stock of where consumer technology thinks it’s headed and how far it’s come. In the 1970s, the conference showcased the first VCR. In the 1980s, it heralded the breakthroughs of gaming consoles and CDs. In the 1990s, everyone was trying to figure out what came next after the PC. The 2000s brought high-definition screens and some of the first smartphones. Lately CES has evolved beyond consumer electronics—hence the name change—becoming a legitimately influential car show as well as a proving ground for the latest attempts at robots and drones, virtual and augmented reality, wearables, and all manner of internet-connected cruft. The big chipmakers deliver annual keynotes whose focus is often a bellwether for what’s to come (and this year at least one of them will have a lot to answer for).

In other words: While many of the biggest companies and products in the technology industry may skirt CES, the biggest trends rarely do.

So what is it this year? The self-driving cars and the connected toothbrushes will still be there—the former being of greater interest than the latter. More software companies are also making the trip these days: The dating app Tinder will tout new features. But 2018 at CES will likely be remembered as the year that all of our gadgets started talking to us—for better or worse. We’ve seen the voice age coming for some time now. This year, consumer technology is embracing it in a big way—maybe too big.

It started last year, when companies began to integrate Amazon’s voice-controlled A.I. assistant, Alexa, into all sorts of products, including a very mockable LG refrigerator with a 29-inch touch screen. Now that Alexa has conquered Christmas—with the Google Assistant not far behind—the deluge is at hand. Just as every trend-chasing company tripped over itself to connect its appliances to the internet five years ago, they’re all racing today to integrate voice assistants, with roughly the same regard for consumers’ actual needs.

Talking to your smart speaker, TV, or even your car is just the beginning. Products at CES 2018 that incorporate voice-powered A.I.s will include not just refrigerators but alarm clocks, air conditioners, glasses, lights, thermostats, window blinds, and deadbolt locks. Mercifully, not all of them will talk back to you. But they’ll all be listening, which could make for some amusing mishaps whenever someone says “Alexa” a little too loudly on the show floor.

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Amazon’s strategy to put the Alexa software on people’s smartphones and other devices, in addition to its own Echo speakers and Fire TV set-top boxes, has been dubbed “Alexa everywhere.” CES will give us a glimpse of what life might be like when that’s literally the case.

Not only will Alexa inhabit many of the gadgets on display, but it will also be the topic of an absurd number of the conference’s panels and sessions. On Wednesday, the show’s second day, you could spend the entire day just going to panels with Alexa in the title: at 9 a.m., “Amazon’s quest for Alexa to be everywhere”; at 10:15 a.m., “Building a smarter home with Alexa”; at 11:30 a.m., “Enabling the future of automotive with Alexa”; and so on.

Alexa will have competition, of course. The specter of a rival A.I. dominating the industry has so spooked Google that it has deigned to officially present at CES for the first time in years. Word is that its installation will be massive, and the “Hey Google” branding makes its intentions clear. Microsoft’s Cortana is also vying for partnerships, as is Samsung’s Bixby, bless its little artificial soul. Apple is still staying out of the CES fray, a strategy that has served it well in the past. But this year, with Siri seemingly losing ground and the HomePod smart speaker delayed, the company may come to regret its absence.

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What CES 2018 will help to clarify is how ready these assistants are to be of practical use in gadgets beyond the speaker and TV—even if, amid the hype, it does not necessarily test how many of them people will tolerate in their homes. No doubt some voice-powered gadgets will prove disappointing: Like the touch screen, voice control is potent in some contexts but a hassle in others, and companies are still in the early “FOMO” phase where they’re too busy playing keep-up to distinguish between the two. And, of course, the more of these products we allow into our lives, the more we will have to examine how scrupulous each corporate maker is with the data we generate simply by talking to its creation.

The only way to address the questions raised by this slew of new talking devices will be to talk back to them—which is what Slate’s technology section will do this week as we cover the show. (Slate’s technology podcast If Then will record from Las Vegas this week.) We’ll also test-ride the self-driving cars, test-fly the drones, wear the wearables, and check in with the chipmakers—not to comprehensively review each new innovation but to understand the ways they might change how we interface with the world. You may not need any of these gizmos, but you’ll probably end up with some of them anyway, eventually.

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