To attend the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is to despair at the wasted ingenuity on display.

How many man hours and how much IQ were sunk, for example, into Coway's Beauty Platform, which has a "multifunctional mirror" that provides "information on the external environment to enable reference by the user as an aid for make-up".

I think that means it will tell you what the weather's like in case you can't be bothered to look out the window.

And what are we to make of the Cinema Snowglobe, which brings the snowglobe into the 21st century (at last!); or Laika, an app-controlled companion for your lonely pooch equipped with a camera, microphone, loudspeaker and "thrower of treats"; or Laundroid, a refrigerator-sized robotic dresser that folds your clothes and will, if it ever hits the shops, cost a mere US$16,000 ($22,000). How many PhDs went into that?

Advertisement

And, in case you're thinking that I was searching out the most ridiculous contraptions, these were all (bar the Laundroid, which I couldn't resist including) on the long list for the CES innovation awards, plucked from the many thousands of exhibits and placed in glass cabinets like religious relics for the huge crowds of attendees to slowly shuffle past and photograph with their smartphones.

There were, of course, interesting and useful medical, agricultural and communications devices on show. But overall you are left with the impression of far too many technological solutions in want of genuine problems.

The impression of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is of far too many technological solutions in want of genuine problems. Picture / AP
The impression of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is of far too many technological solutions in want of genuine problems. Picture / AP

It's not like the world's short of real issues to grapple with. The trouble is that quite a few of these are of the tech industry's making. The unofficial theme of CES this year has been the growing backlash against Silicon Valley.

Google was recently hit with a record €2.4 billion ($4b) fine by European regulators for exploiting its market position, questions have been raised about the role of social media in the 2016 US presidential election and there are fears that increasing automation will threaten jobs and create monopolies.

A parade of tech executives - including Sean Parker, an early investor in Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former executive at the social media behemoth, and Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter - have spoken out about the societal dangers posed by social media.

Earlier this month, CalSTRS, the monster US pension scheme, teamed up with Jana Partners, an activist hedge fund, to try to force Apple to get a better grip on the health effects of its products and provide parents with more control over their children's iPhones and iPads.

The two investors, which collectively own about US$2b worth of Apple stock, cited research linking heavy smartphone use with depression and suicide among teens and young adults.

In the private discussions at CES, some tech executives suggested that the backlash is just an inevitable swing of the pendulum. But, from the outside, it looks more fundamental than that.

Advertisement

Jana, despite counting Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, among its advisers, is not known for touchy-feely campaigns focused on ethics and sustainability.

Perhaps it is trying to fix its own reputation for focusing on short-term profitability. But it's still interesting that it chose this particular battle.

In his open letter to Apple, Barry Rosenstein, the managing partner at Jana, wrote: "The days of just throwing technology out there and washing your hands of the potential impact are over."

CES did little to dissipate the sense we're approaching the end of an era. The keynote speech was given by Brian Krzanich, the boss of Intel. What he said was less interesting than the fact he had to say it just a few days after his company revealed it has made so many chips with so many flaws that most electrical devices on the planet have been rendered about as secure as an old garden shed.

Then on Wednesday - in a disaster for the organisers but a boon for those companies showcasing the latest battery technology (and column writers in need of a metaphor) - the power went out at two of the vast hanger-sized halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center, plunging a good proportion of the 170,000 visitors and 4,000 exhibitors into darkness.

Clues as to which issue might pull the plug on the long period of uncritical tech worship could potentially be found in the numerous discussions, panels and "fireside chats" about artificial intelligence that took place in the various gaudy Las Vegas hotels.

There is, for all its undoubted potential, a distinct whiff of snake oil about AI at the moment and, to their credit, many speakers were quick to acknowledge that the gap between expectations and current capabilities is as wide as the Grand Canyon. But one can't help wondering whether the extent of the misunderstandings about AI is entirely accidental.

The traditional fear is that AI will eventually achieve singularity, develop consciousness and enslave humans as bio-batteries to provide energy for the machine overlords. Or something.

The real dangers lie in the intentions of its operators. "Artificial intelligence" is currently a misnomer - the intelligence all resides with the humans who collect and clean the data, write the algorithms and define the problems they want computers to solve.

One way to close the gap between the expectations and reality of AI would be to admit that it is really just a sophisticated tool and switch to the more accurate label "machine learning".

So why don't companies do this? Undoubtedly many are merely serving up what their customers are baying for (and failing to dampen the hype).

But a cynic might suggest that the misconceptions around AI provide a useful smokescreen, obscuring the true intentions of some companies and ensuring customers continue to feel like customers even as they are being served up as products.

This is an issue that the tech industry needs to proactively address if it wants to get the pendulum of public perception swinging the other way.

And perhaps it should reconsider holding CES in a city that specialises in exploiting the full panoply of human weaknesses while dressing the experience up as a holiday. Las Vegas is an uncomfortably appropriate venue.