The blurred hardware-software line - and how LatAm chips in

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Friday, January 12, 2018

The lines separating the hardware and software industries are blurred. For good.

Smart cities, advanced retail, robotics, IoT and self-driving vehicles, among others, are all to blame, but the fact is that convergence has reached the point of no return.

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The definitive hardware-software tie-up became evident during this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, which ended Friday and is considered the largest tech event in the world.

(Brief parenthesis. Part of this cross-industry, convergent trend is reflected in the decision of the Consumer Electronics Association, the event's organizer, to change its name to Consumer Technology Association, CTA, at the end of 2015.)

This year, over 3,900 exhibitors, including around 900 startups, participated in CES, according to CTA – a record. And a lot of the 20,000 products showcased were software-powered and data processing technologies.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

The name of the game this year was, by far, artificial intelligence.

The show saw a tight contest between Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa, with Apple's Siri running as the dark horse, as the industry's preferred virtual assistant platform.

They came embedding the widest variety of hardware and types of gadgets – from interactive toilets to smart toothbrushes and baby monitoring systems.

A greater variety of interactive personal robots – including "emotional" ones, robots simulating human emotions – could also be seen on display at the show booths or sliding through the venue's hallways.

"[Data is the] unseen driving force behind the next great wave of tech innovation," Intel's CEO Brian Krzanich told the event on Monday.

During his two hour-long keynote, Krzanich went over how Intel is advancing R&D for so-called quantum computing, with powerful conductors able to process much more data than today's supercomputers.

He said that Intel wants to be known as a data company, rather than a semiconductors producer or chipmaker. 

Pietro Delai, leading analyst at IDC for Latin America, said artificial intelligence (and machine-learning) is and will increasingly be the driver of the consumer electronics market and will require more and more data processing capabilities – hence the quantum bet.

But how does Latin America fit into all that? To be short: more as a follower.

Delai said while the region managed to bridge the gap between the global launch of overall goods and their commercial availability for local consumers, when it comes to advanced software such as AI the story is rather different.

"In all, new hardware now come fast [to Latin America], mainly because of the global scale of development and production these products are inserted into. However, when one starts to get into heavy software-powered hardware, the timespan is a bit longer," Delai told BNamericas.

The reasons for this delay are essentially in the complexities surrounding the translation, adaptation and customization of artificial intelligence algorithms into Latin America's reality, habits, context and culture.

OTHER TECHIES AND GOODIES

Paired with AI and machine-learning, new deals involving car manufacturers and software companies for autonomous initiatives were again big highlights at CES.

Hyundai, Kia and Toyota, to name a few, announced self-driving or virtual assistant-related initiatives, underscoring that the boundaries between car shows and tech fairs are definitely over.

In fact, CTA claims that the automotive space at CES makes it the fifth largest stand-alone car show in the US.

Toyota announced a new self-driving mobile marketplace, e-Palette. Some 2mn cars made by BMW, Nissan and Volkswagen will collect data with technology from Intel's Mobileye to create low cost, high definition maps.

Ford CEO Jim Hackett said in a keynote that the future of transportation lies in a systems-based approach for the people of rising smart cities. The company introduced the Transformation Mobility Cloud, an open platform designed to simplify the flow of data in support of transportation systems from vehicles and bicycles to mass transit.

Semiprocessor companies Nvidia, Qualcomm and AMD, all eyeing the data avalanche to come in the next few years, also showed up at CES showcasing their latest wonders.

Traditionally focused on video games, chipset maker Nvidia, for example, announced that a microprocessor for driverless cars, showcased last year, is now ready for use and revealed trials with Volkswagen and Uber.

The world's fifth most powerful brand, Samsung unveiled more advanced smart fridges, interactive boards, a new laptop and intelligent TVs with microLED and announced the interconnection of all its connected devices into a single IoT system by 2020.

The second and third days of the event focused on (generic) 5G talks, the future of video with the streaming challenge, and TV content and technology.

But amid curved 4K and 8K TVs – including foldable models – along with immersive virtual reality solutions to assist shoppers and industries, and new household appliances and smartphones by brands like Huawei, Sony and Alcatel, it was the ubiquitous AI that made the biggest splash.