CNET's Next Big Thing: Are we all too connected?

At the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, tech industry stars discussed the benefits -- and pitfalls -- of an increasingly connected world.

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LAS VEGAS -- Pervasive Internet connectivity has changed the world, connecting people and objects and countries like never before. Data is the new oil. Sensors are ubiquitous. Electricity? Expected.

Is this trend healthy or harmful? Key players in the technology industry assembled here at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show to discuss just that. CNET's Molly Wood and Brian Cooley hosted entrepreneur Mark Cuban, LG Electronics executive James Fishler, Ford futurist Sheryl Connelly and Sprint executive Fared Adib in a rollicking, sometimes raucous debate on the connected revolution.

The discussion addressed three topics: how connected devices will evolve, how the communications infrastructure that supports them will change, and what it all means. It all began with a simple question: what's the next big thing?

Coming trends
Cuban cited the impact of connectivity on the healthcare industry. It's a "big game-changer," Cuban said, because "your body becomes the network of networks" that can inform medical professionals and help them tailor treatment to the individual patient.

LG's Fishler cited the smart appliance sector, painting a portrait of a Jetsons-like world in which a recipe can be passed around the kitchen -- starts with the refrigerator, ends with the oven, for example -- thanks to networked appliances.

Ford's Connelly took a more abstract tack. She said that the next big thing would be reclaiming one's time. Hyper-connectivity will allow us to curate the tremendous amount of data we're receiving, she said, so that we really only receive what's relevant and timely and important.

"It's not about information," she said. "It's about getting the right information at the right time."

Sprint's Adib said he was excited about machine-to-machine technology, which underlies all of the examples given by his fellow panelists, because it's a money-maker for a telecommunications company like his. But there are serious capacity issues that will only get worse, he warned.

At CES 2013, Brian Cooley, Molly Wood, Fared Adib, Sheryl Connelly, James Fishler and Mark Cuban discuss the implications of a connected world. Josh Miller/CNET

Existential questions
But how will connectivity itself change? The panelists agreed that software and user interfaces were replacing hardware as the most innovative areas of technology. As the number of connected nodes increase, the network -- not the hardware -- is what really matters. It all comes down to technology's original promise: solve problems, Connelly said.

"What it boils down to is, what's convenient for the consumer?" she asked.

But it's not that simple, Cuban warned. There are pitfalls in every approach, and addressing a problem sometimes loses sight of the bigger picture. "When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail," he said.

"Maybe your water bottle doesn't have to be tweeting," Wood said, half-joking, in accord.

Successful connectivity centers around helping the real world function better, Cuban said. It's not about the technology per se. "The sensor is almost irrelevant," because once there are enough nodes out there, you focus on the insights, he said.

Just look at the smartphone, an individual's personal pack of sensors. The smartphone has become a person's central processing unit, Adib said, complementing the brain.

Cuban agreed. The devices become platforms for other things, he said, assembling all the brainpower in a community to make the collective smarter.

Which means the technology needs to be seamless. "Easy, pervasive, and affordable," Cooley said.

But there's a big seam that's not easily smoothed: capacity. As the telecom executive on the panel, Adib reminded everyone that the communications pipeline has a very real limit to how much data it can transmit, and that could threaten the progress of some of these big-picture ideas. "One thing we can't do is change the laws of physics," he said. It's like a congested highway with no more room for additional lanes: you must address the problem from an efficiency standpoint, not a capacity one.

Which means developers need to get smarter about how data is flowing, even as telecom companies like Sprint build more capacity. One place we're seeing that already? The 4G LTE wireless standard, which promises a faster but more efficient link than the 3G version popular today. Unfortunately, usage continues to grow at a rapid clip even as efficiencies are made, Adib said, setting our wireless world up for another crunch. "Customers drive demand," Fishler said -- and they want data.

"The days of people being afraid of technology? Those days are gone," Cuban said.

Where rubber hits road
Finally, the panelists discussed how this technology would be adopted by people, and some of the potential issues as connectivity becomes more pervasive. Take "smart" televisions, for example -- they're connected, but few seem to know or care how to use them because they're so complicated to operate, Fishler said.

Connelly called the phenomenon "feature fatigue" -- that feeling of disappointment and regret of having purchased a powerful product that you don't know how to use. In fact, that's why she wants her precious personal time back. Where is the feature for that?

Playing devil's advocate, Cuban disagreed, citing how e-mail has made communication with people much faster for him. "I don't do meetings. I don't do phone calls. I do e-mail -- unless you're going to write me a check," he said to peals of laughter from the audience. "My life has been dramatically simplified."

Adib said this improvement could also pay dividends in other situations, such as driving. A faster way to achieve a task -- such as sending a text message to someone en route -- may also be a safer one.

It all comes down to the data and the insights from it, Cuban said. That is the key to the connected revolution -- once the path is established, we need to doing something useful with it.

"We have to learn how to process," Cuban said, "what's signal and what's noise."

 

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