Cyber Culture: My pick of the Consumer Electronics Show - flexible flat screens


The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas brought its usual delicious combination of ingenious technological innovation and baffling attempts to solve problems that never need solving in the first place.

Thanks to the power of viral video, the most enduring legacy of CES 2013 may be the excruciating opening keynote, delivered this year by Qualcomm; view it on YouTube if you dare, but for those who are too fearful (or can't be bothered), its message ("Born Mobile") was hammered home by awkward scripts and a trio of screeching young actors delivering lines like "Boom! My phone is my conference room!" (We all know how much teenagers yearn for their own conference room.)

Other questionable highlights of the week included the unveiling of the Samsung T9000 internet fridge (see for a neat history of our persistent lack of interest in internet fridges) and the Panasonic SR-SX2 rice cooker which, for no obvious reason, you can control with your Android phone.

But we learned things, too. The enthusiasm for 3D that's been so generously flung about at CES for the past few years is finally waning; 3D-related announcements were noticeably thin on the ground as larger companies twigged that we really aren't that bothered about 3D, bless its poor little anaglyphic spectacles.

Instead, screen technology of the future came in a number of exciting new forms: Ultra HD screens, four times the resolution of the current HD consumer standard and currently selling at upwards of $20,000 (£12,450) each; prototypes of curved OLED TVs from Samsung and LG, with the ubiquitous flat screen now bent into a gentle concave arc; and a flexible display from Plastic Logic (a firm founded by researchers from Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory) that aims to imbue computing with a "magazine-like" reading experience.

Plastic Logic has been touting its flexible display technology for quite a while, now. In a video uploaded to YouTube just over six years ago, it demonstrated the hardy resilience of its invention by repeatedly thwacking it with the heel of a shoe – and it's that lightweight robustness that's still its most promising feature. You can chuck it onto a desk, shove it in a bag or, in particularly stressful moments, hurl it at a wall without damaging it. But as for a "magazine-like" experience with bendable, foldable digital pages – is this something we really want, or are we merely experiencing a twinge of nostalgia at seeing modern technology emulate something traditional?

The fairly pallid monochrome screen featured by Plastic Logic at CES won't convert any doubters – but maybe give it a few years. Anyone who, like me, nervously cradles their glass-screened tablet as if it were a newborn infant would certainly welcome a device that requires a little less TLC.

The schoolkids who refuse to be given chips

A school in San Antonio, Texas, decided at the beginning of the last school year to implement a new-fangled spin on morning registration.

Instead of a time-consuming roll-call of names, the children would have RFID chips embedded in their school ID cards. This way the school could easily and comprehensively count every child present on campus that day, saving time, and with funding based on the average daily attendance, saving money too.

But they didn't count on it being such an emotive issue. Aside from contactless payments, one of RFID's major uses is the monitoring of goods and animals in transit, so it's perhaps unsurprising that parents might resent their kids being "tracked like cattle". But resistance came from an unexpected direction. The parents of one student, Andrea Hernandez, likened the chip to the "Mark of the Beast" as described in the Book of Revelation and refused to let their daughter wear the device on religious grounds. Their stance ended up bringing together a bizarre coalition in their defence, including human rights groups, the Christian right and "the most paranoid man in America", conspiracy theorist and talk-radio host Alex Jones (who you may have seen screaming at Piers Morgan on CNN last week).

None of them believe that she should have to carry an RFID chip; civil liberties group The Rutherford Institute issued a statement deploring the "school district's insistence on steamrollering students into complying with programs that have nothing whatsoever to do with academic priorities and everything to do with fattening school coffers".

The school requested a compromise where Hernandez would wear the ID card with the battery removed, thus bypassing the automatic attendance check. Her family refused – a decision which effectively lost them the first round of a court case last week after a judge ruled that this compromise would have meant their religious rights were no longer breached. But with 200 other children at the school now refusing to wear the chips following the outcry, an exercise in administrative streamlining has become a compelling debate about privacy in an RFID-enabled world. (And a far less compelling one over whether making a contactless payment will cause us to burn in hell for all eternity.)

The Library of Congress welcomes 170 billion new titles

A deal struck between Twitter and the Library of Congress has just seen the first 170 billion tweets, sent since the service's inception in March 2006, archived for posterity across 133 terabytes of disk space. The library is now hard at work catching up with tweets from the present, with nearly half a billion thoughts splurged onto the social media service every day. Having just made a random dip into Twitter and discovered someone called @willbr0 saying "when welsh people say lush omg", I have to admit that, on a tweet-by-tweet basis, Twitter is largely drivel. But as a whole it's a profoundly important data set that's ripe for research – both cultural and historical.

The difficulty faced by researchers has always been how to mine that Twitter resource. Anyone who's done a straightforward Twitter search will know that results are only returned from the last week or so.

Delving back further is problematic, repeated search requests are blocked by the limits of Twitter's API, and third-party redistribution of tweets is prohibited by Twitter's Terms of Service. The Library of Congress deal means that everything is archived, but the size of that archive is so huge that a single search currently takes 24 hours. As an LOC spokesman said: "It's clear that technology to allow for scholarship access to large data sets is not nearly as advanced as the technology for creating and distributing that data."

As if it wasn't glaringly apparent from our own social media behaviour, we're churning it out way, way faster than we can assess what it all might actually mean.

Computer says: "@#*$ *%#!"

As 2013 begins, we're another year closer – at least in theory – to the prospect of a computer passing the Turing test, i.e. managing to convince a human that its responses are generated by a human rather than a computer.

In this week's edition of Fortune magazine, Eric Brown, an IBM research scientist working on Watson, the supercomputer that won the US quiz show Jeopardy in 2011, described one of the main difficulties: teaching a computer the difference between polite language and slang.

In an attempt to make Watson more "street", Brown's team fed in the contents of the website Urban Dictionary, but found it difficult to get it to use its new vocabulary in a socially sensitive way. After answering "bullshit" to a researcher's query, Watson was deemed to be out of control; Urban Dictionary was later erased from its memory.

Of course, humans can be inappropriately sweary, too. But teaching a computer how to be appropriately inappropriately sweary? That's still a good few years away.