— That’s a wrap: CES had a lot of dropouts among the big tech companies that are usually the targets of Washington’s scrutiny. That made for more collegiality between policymakers and smaller exhibitors.
— Metaverse this, metaverse that: The technology may be several years off, but it had an outsize presence at CES — drawing excitement from some and eyerolls from others.
— Do as I do: CES organizers may have set the stage for other major tech, telecom and business conferences to take place in a hybrid format in 2022.
GREETINGS FROM VEGAS! John Hendel and Alexandra Levine here. We’re thrilled to be in your inbox one final time for this special edition newsletter on all-things tech policy at CES. John’s reporting from on the ground in Vegas, and Alex remotely from California.
Have questions about what we saw IRL? Tips on people we should chat with post-CES? Send ’em over to [email protected] and [email protected], and follow @JohnHendel and @Ali_Lev on Twitter for more tea.
END SCENE: TOP TAKEAWAYS FROM CES, AND WHAT’S NEXT — Against all odds, CES came to a successful close on Friday — albeit with a fraction of its usual attendance and a day earlier than originally planned. This year’s event fell far short of the nearly 200,000 people who used to make the trip pre-pandemic, but CTA estimated Friday that tens of thousands of attendees had still gathered in Vegas.
Amid unconventional features like mandatory masking, shuttles were often at least half full, business meetings convened and exhibitors were still eager to strap visitors into the latest VR gadgetry or show off autonomous tractors and color-changing cars.
Yes, most anyone on the ground would tell you the one-off cough or sneeze ignited anxiety. Still, people generally seemed delighted to be there, and the week left CES-goers and those watching from afar intrigued and inspired. Here’s what we learned at CES, and what that bodes for 2022 and beyond:
1) Tech got a respite from its Washington woes.
Decisions by Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft, TikTok and other prominent players to sit out CES in person opened the door for other tech companies to flex their muscles. The absence of the big tech companies, usually the target of Washington’s ire, also set a more harmonious tone as policymakers shared the CES stages with startups and entrepreneurs.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg effectively called for the tech industry and D.C. to hold hands. And companies from outside Silicon Valley, including health tech firms, had the chance to remind audiences that tech innovations are helping people get through the pandemic.
At a keynote by Abbott on Thursday, CEO Robert Ford said the company would manufacture more than 70 million Binax tests this month and touted its plans to move well beyond Covid, as it develops rapid tests for concussions, implantable devices and personalized nutrition tools. “People are living longer than ever before, and we are using technology to ensure that those longer lives are lived to the fullest,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but that’s definitely a future that I feel inspired to be part of.”
2) Metaverse was the ultimate buzzword.
The terms “metaverse” and “metaverse-ian” were thrown around. A lot. (In this Twitter thread, one attendee kept a running tally of “every ridiculous usage of metaverse” he saw at CES.) One chief medical officer said on a panel Thursday that “metaverse” had become a top CES buzzword the way that “AI” had been a few years ago, adding that many companies are quick to use these terms for marketing — in some cases, without understanding what they mean.
That was indeed clear to John as he wandered the grounds, beholding sights like the Metaverse City tent that enticed: “CLAIM YOUR .METAVERSE DOMAIN NOW.” Reality check: It could be years before much of this virtual-reality and augmented-reality technology takes shape and becomes a substantial part of people’s lives. (Take me down to the Metaverse City…)
Asked about the metaverse’s presence at CES, and whether it’s just hype, Senate tech leader Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told Alex: “The shiny object is always going to get the attention.”
3) Industry and lawmakers have their eyes on the youth.
During a roundtable Friday with five female Senate leaders who discussed their tech policy priorities for 2022, Blackburn emphasized that the Senate Commerce consumer protection panel is moving ahead on children’s online privacy after holding five hearings on the topic.
Blackburn, the subcommittee’s top Republican, outlined her tech agenda for Alex after the forum: “You have to put consumer and children’s privacy at the top of the list.” But pressed on what Congress can deliver and when, on children’s safety and broader privacy legislation, she said only that “we’re continuing to work through that — I think you will see something begin to come out sooner rather than later.”
As Congress inches (or centimeters?) ahead, CES attendees from Samsung to Zoom highlighted big plans to tailor more of their products to younger consumers.
4) This is probably a model for other large events.
The Consumer Technology Association took its share of flak before the conference for deciding to hold CES in person during the Omicron wave. But during a Friday panel, former Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) applauded the hybrid expo as an example of finding a way “to do things in tough situations.”
Major trade groups watching from afar in Washington said CTA’s work on CES would pave the way for others to follow their lead. “By staging an influential live event that safely convenes thousands of global professionals across the technology, business and political spectrum, CES is nothing short of a model for how business trade events can and should take place in 2022,” said U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow.
And the new head of the National Association of Broadcasters, who unexpectedly showed up in Las Vegas, told John during a sit-down that CES is a test case as his own group weighs whether to resume holding its annual show in Vegas this April. (It historically has drawn 100,000 people.) “We are very, very optimistic” that NAB can do its own show “safely in person,” said the new CEO, Curtis LeGeyt. (More below from John’s one-on-one with LeGeyt.)
But John, who attended IRL, offered this safety gut check: Attendees generally honored CES’ Covid protocols but didn’t always do so, especially later in the day on the trade show floor. (As he walked the exhibit floors after shipping Thursday’s newsletter, he saw that many exhibitors and attendees had started freely de-masking — a sign of the difficulties of sustained mask-wearing for eight-plus hours.)
NEW BROADCASTER CHIEF WARNS OF TECH INDUSTRY POWER — One surprise, high-profile appearance on the ground this week was LeGeyt, a longtime top executive at the National Association of Broadcasters who donned the CEO title on New Year’s Day. He took the reins from former Sen. Gordon Smith, who had led the TV and radio trade group for more than a decade.
John sat down with the new broadcast chief, who emphasized that despite all the tech innovation on display at CES, Congress probably needs to safeguard industries like his own from the industry’s power.
— “These tech companies are extremely important,” LeGeyt told John in a hallway of the Las Vegas Convention Center. “They are business partners of ours in a certain sense. But at the same time, I think Congress’ focus on market power is one that for the broadcast industry is existential.”
That’s why LeGeyt likes lawmakers’ embrace of an antitrust agenda that would curb some of the tech giants, who he says “are disrupting our ability to directly interface with our audiences and to monetize our content through advertising.”
— His top priority going into 2022 is Congress advancing the Journalism Competition Preservation Act, a bipartisan measure from top Hill antitrust leaders Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) that would bolster news publishers’ ability to vie against Google and Facebook for online ad revenue.
“It is hard in the current congressional environment to do big things,” but this bill is “a little bit more of a rifle shot,” he said, predicting it could gain momentum. It “addresses a very specific problem that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are focused on right now” — namely, disinformation — by proposing “fair, pro-competitive terms” for local media.
— LeGeyt says he trekked to CES in person to see new technology affecting the future of the TV and audio marketplaces and partnerships between broadcasters and consumer electronics players, from LG to Samsung to Sony.
CES hosts TV manufacturers, who will be big players in bringing about the next-generation broadcast standard that NAB’s station members are rolling out. And then there are the vendors focusing on the future of audio and the car companies so important for the radio stations he represents. “I needed to see that firsthand,” he said.
TOPPING THE HILL’S TECH AGENDA: BOLSTERING U.S. COMPETITIVENESS — Senators offered a series of welcome messages for the tech industry Friday, focused both on fostering equity and diversity in the industry and on investing major dollars in spurring innovation.
— “The primary thing we’re going to try to do early when we return is to pass USICA,” Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told attendees, referring to the sprawling R&D bill known as the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. The legislation is broadly aimed at upping U.S. competitiveness with China, including by ramping up manufacturing of semiconductor chips and 5G wireless experimentation. The Senate passed one version last year, but senators and the House are still wrangling over the final product.
— Cantwell and other senators on Friday’s bipartisan panel, led by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), talked about expanding opportunity and tech activity throughout the United States That includes making sure women and underrepresented individuals help make decisions at tech companies and nurturing hubs beyond Silicon Valley and Washington state. “We want to see innovation happen in other places,” Cantwell said. “This bill is about geographic diversity.
— The senators had wandered the exhibits earlier in the day and said they were encouraged by the diversity and ideas they saw. One focus of expanding opportunity, they all emphasized, was making sure the $65 billion in newly approved broadband expansion investments is well spent, including in states that may not be fully prepared.
“This is really going to be our biggest chance ever,” Senate Broadband Caucus Co-Chair Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) remarked.
Others, like Blackburn, emphasized the need for broadband investments to first help fully unserved areas, and to allow for a range of technologies to compete for the money. Both are features that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), another panelist, had secured when helping write the legislation.
AI AND EUROPE WEIGH ON SPEAKERS’ MINDS — In the trade show’s final sessions, members of Congress and global tech officials convened to hash out the next big challenges ahead in emerging tech areas like artificial intelligence. For starters, are policymakers around the world even on the same page in addressing topics like AI and autonomous vehicles?
— “Having a clarity on core, basic terms and concepts is something standards bring to the table,” remarked Peter Brown, counselor and senior adviser on technology policy at the European Union Parliament Liaison Office, during an AI discussion Friday. He defended the development of standards for this reason, though he described the challenges that could await the AI Act that the European Parliament is considering.
Brown suspected that some members of Parliament may challenge the three-tiered proposal in the legislation, which includes bans on certain riskier autonomous technologies, regulation of some and permissiveness for others. “If something exists, just banning it doesn’t really help.”
— Policymakers are still struggling with how prescriptive to make some of these requirements, Brown added, making analogies to the unexpected frictions that arose from Europe’s adoption of privacy rules. In that case, big tech companies found it easy to comply due to their scale, he noted, while those “who got hit were largely smaller businesses.”
— Some unexpected U.S. lawmakers popped up at these sessions, demonstrating that Washington was watching even amid the many CES dropouts. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a first-term Republican from Iowa, offered a note of optimism Friday about whether AI technology will supplant people: “I don’t believe it’ll replace humans,” she assured attendees in opening remarks. “We have this little quirk of being predictably unpredictable.”
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