The conference did feature CES first-ever discussion of breaking up the big tech companies an idea getting a lot of debate, thanks to politicians like Elizabeth Warren, that once would have seemed unthinkable. But that proposal lacked any real champions. It would have been even more lively if a break em up advocate was also on the panel, said Information Technology and Innovation Foundation President Robert Atkinson, who spoke at Thursdays session on the topic and argued against breakups.
That panel, along with similar sessions on issues like privacy, artificial intelligence and blockchain regulation, was held on the Las Vegas Convention Center’s sleepier upper floors, away from the glitz and buzz of the multistory showroom halls where people poked, prodded or swooned over products like sweat-analyzing skin patches, a DNA-powered wrist strap that warns wearers about poor food choices and smartwatches for kids promising parents real-time location tracking. Thats not to mention the Twitter and Amazon parties where Snoop Dogg played DJ and Guy Fieri mixed cocktails.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. | Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, one of the top-ranking federal officials to speak at the conference, came not with threats of onerous regulations but with an announcement of non-binding guidelines for self-driving cars. And in an interview, she said the government should avoid overestimating its own wisdom about what technologies will prevail decades from now.
It’s very important that we let the private sector flourish and we let the consumers decide which technologies they want, Chao told POLITICO. It is not a good idea for the federal government to choose winners or losers and for us to think we can look 20 years in the future and decide which technology is the best technology.
The tech world emissaries gathered in Las Vegas view building the future as their role, and theyre launching products and apps faster than Washingtons lawmakers and regulators can keep up.
Some also argue they can address concerns like privacy more effectively than the feds could. Those included Dean Patrick, growth and marketing manager at IoTeX, a Menlo Park-based company focused on using blockchain to create privacy-respecting internet-connected devices, such as the new security camera UCam. He maintains the company already uses higher standards than any of the proposed federal privacy rules on the table in Washington.
As for the role Washingtons debates are playing in the minds of others in the tech industry, said Patrick, it’s just not aligned with how technologists think. The industry is Move fast and break things. Shoot first and ask questions later.”
Congress is still deadlocked on what a federal privacy law should look like, despite a series of massive data scandals, and its still refighting the 1990s debate about giving law enforcement access to peoples encrypted communications. Meanwhile, companies like Uber have prospered while plowing past legal niceties such as taxi regulations, and Facebook for all the bipartisan flak its facing in Washington saw its stock price surge 54 percent last year.
Washingtons presence was felt at the conference, but this was no D.C. wonk-fest.
Of the more than 1,100 speakers listed on the events website, the agenda included no members of Congress and only two congressional aides, although some U.S. lawmakers attended, including a visit Friday from Nevada Democratic Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto.
At least 34 executive branch officials were listed as speakers or panelists at CES, according to a POLITICO review, including two Cabinet members, first daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump and leaders of the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Policy discussions are a critical part of the CES program and we invite all members of Congress and policy officials at all levels of government, said Michael Petricone, senior vice president of the Consumer Technology Association, the organization putting on the conference. He said this weeks summit welcomed over 230 officials from across the world.
But some of those officials were on hand to make their own sort of product pitches not to wage war on the industry. They included U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios, who touted the White Houses new draft policies on federal agency regulation of artificial intelligence. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillettes scheduled talk this week canceled for unexplained reasons had a theme that sounded celebratory, promoting the U.S. as The Greatest Innovative Nation.
Gov. Steve Sisolak. | Rick Bowmer, File/AP Photo
And the politicians here largely celebrated tech as an economic boon, not as a threat to U.S. democracy or Americans privacy. Speaking at a conference dinner Wednesday night, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak lauded the fact that the Las Vegas Convention Center at nearly 2 million square feet, already one of the worlds biggest conference halls was being expanded to house future iterations of the event.
Technology is the future in our state, said Sisolak, a Democrat elected last year.
Some of the interactions here reflected how little Washington seems to matter. Mignon Clyburn, until very recently a central figure in the D.C. telecommunications policy world, served as a panel moderator, noting to the crowd at one point, “For those who I don’t know, I wore another hat a couple years ago as a Federal Communications commissioner.
Try as Clyburn did to draw out her panelists on the question of whether federal regulators should take on issues such as discriminatory applications of artificial intelligence, she got little traction.
Im not a policy expert, said Bernard Coleman, the global head of diversity and inclusion at Uber.
Another sign of the disconnect between Washington and tech: Back in the nations capital, the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has drawn heavy criticism as a potential threat to U.S. national security. The Trump administration has tried to keep Huawei out of 5G rollouts around the world and is seeking to prosecute the companys chief financial officer on charges of violating sanctions against Iran.
But at CES, Huawei is a hot gadget maker. Its booth on the showroom floor was mobbed by conference goers this week, with much excitement focused on the Mate X, a phone yet to be released in the United States that folds out into a nearly square tablet.