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The future of the tech world just passed you by

Music entrepreneur Russell Simmons appeared at CES yesterday and spoke about the rapid pace of tech change.
Music entrepreneur Russell Simmons appeared at CES yesterday and spoke about the rapid pace of tech change.

The speed of the tech world is moving so fast that even captains of the industry seem at times to be strangely bewildered over how to deal with it. It makes the notion of predicting the future almost laughable, as evidenced by not one but two panel sessions of big hitters at CES in Las Vegas yesterday. As neatly summed up by music entrepreneur Russell Simmons of All Def fame, “(blank) just happens so fast.”

Simmons ought to know. Though he has rapidly adapted his music empire to the online world by creating three separate digital companies, it was the viral nature of the Internet that made his world distinctly uncomfortable just a few months ago.

The All Def digital channel on YouTube aired a parody clip which depicted Harriet Tubman, the former slave and freedom fighter, secretly recording her sexual relationship with a slave master. The backlash was fierce and Simmons quickly removed the offending video. As he described it yesterday, “My publicist suddenly dragged me off the stage at an event where I was speaking, telling me that I was in really big trouble.”

Even such a seemingly low-risk thing as an appearance at the world’s largest technology trade show can suddenly backfire and result in unexpected publicity. At the Samsung press conference on Monday, the Korean technology giant thought it would be a great idea if the renowned director Michael Bay helped their executives introduce a new TV product.

But when the teleprompter suddenly failed, a flustered Bay panicked and fled the stage, an event that managed to eclipse Samsung’s own product news as the online gossip mill churned at a furious pace. As David Shing, AOL’s Digital Prophet, pointed out with undisguised glee during one panel discussion yesterday, “Who hasn’t heard the news about Michael Bay, the poor bastard!”

As more users demand connectivity around the clock to the “Internet of things,” chip makers and telecom companies are scrambling furiously to innovate even faster than before. At a separate panel discussion yesterday, Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs was joined by Hans Vestberg, the CEO of Ericsson and John Donovan of AT&T to take a stab at predicting the future of technology. They spent much of the hour shaking their corporate heads in amazement at how fast the technological advances are moving. Pointing to the smartphone and its rapid ascent in importance to all things digital, Donovan said, “The phone is now the remote control for your life.”

For his part, Jacobs dropped a couple of interesting hints about what Qualcomm is working on. He described how his company is researching neuromorphic computing or how to “build brains into silicon.” At another point, Jacobs said his firm was engaged in a clinical trial in San Diego with a sensor that can be directly injected into the blood stream. And we all thought Qualcomm was merely a chip supplier for the cellphone world.

Not to be outdone, Vestberg held up a small radio cell that Ericsson has developed for easier connectivity, called the “Dot.” And in Ericsson’s booth at CES this week, visitors can witness a demonstration of “connected paper.” In the example they provide, an Ericsson employee picks up a small cardboard box in one hand and its shipping information magically appears in seconds on the tablet screen he holds in the other. The body is now a conduit for the transfer of digital data.

Predicting the future of technology can be a tricky game, especially at the huge CES technology show every year. There are many forecasts that don’t always come true. Remember when 3D TV was going to take the world by storm?

But the speed of innovation is now placing whole industries on a roller coaster of change that can eclipse the wildest of thrill rides. As Eddy Moretti of Vice Media, said in one panel yesterday, “We love technology, but we should all be a little bit terrified of it.”

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