January 30, 2017      

LAS VEGAS — Why did more than 170,000 people attend the Consumer Electronics Show here this month? Maybe because of CES innovations like social robots from LG or drones from China that are bigger than anything we’ve seen. Or, better yet, self-driving cars with designs that make films like Minority Report seem close to reality.

Regardless of why you may have attended the show or followed it from afar, it’s unlikely that you had geopolitics in mind. But, that’s exactly what I was doing as I walked through various exhibit halls and looked at numerous booths.

Here are top four CES innovations that stood out for me because of their potential geopolitical applications.

Business Takeaways:

  • Not only was CES 2017 an opportunity to see the latest in consumer robotics, drones, and AI applications, but it was also a venue to spot potential security products.
  • Natural language and gesture interfaces, small drones that can shoot, and the ability to create images by applying machine learning were just some of the CES innovations we spotted with geopolitical implications.
  • How much will law-enforcement agencies, militaries, and non-state actors turn to off-the-shelf technologies? In addition to startups, vendors and regulators should take note.

Clinc

Clinc Inc. is an artificial intelligence company that has developed a personal assistant called Finie. Co-founders Jason Mars and Lingjia Tang told Robotics Business Review that Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Clinc is developing Finie for the fintech or financial technology industry. It is intended to help businesses and their customers understand their finances and make informed decisions.

But the real power behind Finie is its ability to rapidly absorb data, run multiple algorithms, and make accurate inferences and projections — all through a smartphone app or Web-based platform.

For example, if you are curious about a recent trip you took, you can open your banking app and ask, “How much did I spend in Las Vegas last week on food?” Or, if you need to make a quick change to your finances, you can ask Finie to do it for you, in a natural, conversational way, like, “I played too much poker last night; transfer $500 to savings.”

Because of this growing voice sophistication, people will likely rely on Finie-type assistants more and more in the near future.

Can governments use these assistants to influence foreign populations?

If AI-enabled Xiaomi or Huawei smartphones are used by hundreds of millions of people across the world, would this give Beijing the ability to influence their spending habits, news consumption, and other behaviors by controlling the intelligent assistants?

Finnie is the first look at the future of AI on smartphones, and CES innovations like this also give us a glimpse at how we can make wider use of intelligent assistants, as well as the risk of manipulation and dependency.

Wingsland

CES innovations such as drone ammunition could have security implications.

Wingsland’s drone accessory can shoot foam balls.

 

Wingsland is a drone manufacturer based in Shenzhen, China, the city that is famous for its rapidly growing manufacturing and high-tech industries. What makes Wingsland’s drones stand out isn’t the drones themselves, but the accessories that you can purchase — specifically an accessory that can shoot objects at targets.

It wasn’t clear why Wingsland introduced a shooting accessory to a consumer drone. But such a capability could be used by militaries that could equip these off-the-shelf drones with bullets or other ammunition.

Will such developments encourage the adoption of drones by local law-enforcement agencies? Or will they make it easier for drones to be used for terrorism?

Xenoma

One eye-catching exhibit at CES was Xenoma Inc.‘s. The University of Tokyo spinoff showed off its “e-skin” by having a young woman wear the flexible suit and move her arms in different ways, activating different sounds. Xenoma is currently focusing on fitness, virtual reality and healthcare uses for e-skin.

However, watching Xenoma’s representative control sounds with her movements raised another possibility in my mind. Could this type of wearable interface allow soldiers to do different things in addition to being combined with an exosuit that enhances strength and endurance?

Currently, soldiers call for something via a communications teammate or use their own devices. But what if Japanese soldiers holding drills could call for a group of drones by moving their hands in a specific sequence and use geolocation to have the drones autonomously navigate and come to the soldier?

What if a unit commander could turn of all communications in a dangerous setting by waving his hand in a specific manner in front of his soldiers?

Technology such as e-skin could dictate future tactics.

Pointivo

In CES’s Eureka Park, startup Pointivo Inc. stood out. Founded in 2014, the Atlanta-based company offers a “3D intelligence platform” that renders models of environments using machine learning. It can do this through any device and doesn’t require human input.

Pointivo’s marketing video showed its technology being applied to drone monitoring of roofing, but an AI application that can generate 3D renderings of any landscape through any device has clear security uses.

Beyond the obvious utility of enabling police or troops to render buildings, bunkers, towns, and more on demand before entering them, Pointivo can go one step further.

Using machine learning, Pointivo could provide new surveillance capabilities. For example, Iran’s supposedly secret bases are well known — in fact, a video published by Russia Today showed one.

But it would be hard for the U.S. or other countries to get an accurate rendering of this base. By reviewing drone-gathered data with AI and machine learning, Pointivo could render such installations with unprecedented accuracy. Of course, there are also privacy and security implications.

More on CES, Robotics, and Security:

CES innovations could see security uses

As its name implies, the focus at CES every year is on consumers. But as new technologies emerge and converge — especially in robotics, AI, wearable tech, and drones — the applications are expanding. CES innovations that are typically directed at the consumer market increasingly have security or geopolitical implications.

In addition, as startups compete for funding and buyers, CES provides a window into how some of these products could pivot to serve civil and military concerns. In fact, it would be nice of the organizers of CES devoted a marketplace or conference to security technologies in their future conferences.