Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg is never shy about expressing his vision for the connected-everything world of the future. In fact, he just might be the single biggest promoter of the mythical "connected toothbrush." And while Vestberg's keynote at this year's International CES might have bordered on science fiction, it's certainly an informed projection of how technology, specifically wireless technology, is changing the way humans live, work and play on planet Earth.
While Vestberg has presented at a number of CTIA conferences, Wednesday marked his first CES keynote, which is telling. So important has wireless become to nearly every segment of the CE market that it almost feels like a wireless show. Vestberg highlighted numerous examples of what Ericsson's nitty-gritty and utterly unsexy (at least for CES) chips, network hardware and software enable, which is no small deal when you consider that roughly 50 percent of all global mobile traffic goes through Ericsson equipment.
It's essential that a company like Ericsson, which develops and manufactures what is basically the backbone of modern cellular networks, understands how usage patterns are evolving. The company does this through its R&D centers and in cooperation with institutions like MIT. Vestberg used the insights gleaned and solutions developed from these endeavors as the heart of his keynote.
For instance, Vestberg invited Christopher Mikkelsen, one of the co-founders of Refugees United, on stage to discuss Ericsson's partnership with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and operator MTN. Together, these organization are enabling a global search engine for displaced people looking for loved ones. Some 65,000 people are now registered on the service.
"In 2009, an average organization in Kenya had the capacity to open about 900 refugee tracing cases a year," Mikkelsen said. "Since our project has been up and running, they've been able to open 70,000."
Carlo Ratti, a professor at MIT's Senseable Cities Lab, introduced a collaboration between Ericsson and MIT that looks to reveal patterns of human behavior by analyzing mobile data traffic. Ratti showed a recent project the lab completed, where various types of trash were tagged with chips and then tracked. After 24 hours, the 3,000 pieces of trash that were tagged in Seattle had been distributed by various means throughout the state of Washington. Within a month, the trash had been transported to all ends of the country.
"The network is not an abstract concept … we can use it for work and leisure, but also as a tool to reflect and better understand ourselves," Ratti said.
Vestberg also took time to announce Ericsson's new partnership with Maersk, the largest maritime shipping company in the world. Ericsson will provide tracking and diagnostic equipment for Maersk's fleet.
Vestberg's finale was definitely aimed at the CES crowd, as he demonstrated a technology called "capacitive coupling" in which a photograph was transferred from a telephone, then hand-to-hand, through the human body, to the large screen without using radio signals.
"Ultimately, we are the network," he said in describing the research project.
Ericsson estimates that by 2020, there will be 50 billion connected devices on the world's networks. Vestberg added that it's hard to predict exactly how the Networked Society will shape up, but that we can be prepared by embracing the new mindset and enabling new solutions.