To kick off this year’s CES, the media group ShowStoppers, in conjunction with the Japanese trade group JETRO, gave 10 start-ups the opportunity to pitch to a room brimming with media and potential investors.
I frankly wasn’t expecting much from the pitches to be directly relevant to legal. However, listening to start-up pitches is always a source of inspiration and energy. But it took me a few minutes of listening to the pitches to realize something was missing: There was a conspicuous absence of the mention of Gen AI in their narratives.
The presenters simply weren’t talking about Gen AI. Nor were they hawking products and platforms that even used Gen AI. In a landscape dominated by the buzz and relentless hype around Gen AI, especially in legal, this was a refreshing change
And despite predictions of CES 2024 being awash with Gen AI innovations (one trusted media source predicted a Gen AI tsunami) the young presenters didn’t seem to have gotten the message. Out of 10, nine didn’t even mention Gen AI. Their focus? Old-school problem-solving.
Each of these nine pitches instead started with a specific problem to be solved and then on a unique technological solution. Yes, some of the ideas seemed a little far fetched at first blush. But when you listened to the problem each idea was designed to solve, they didn’t seem so outlandish after all.
Here is what they pitched and the problem each solved:
- A carbon accounting platform for measuring and monitoring carbon emissions to improve global warming and meet the demands of industries to be carbon neutral.
- A compact robotic food packaging solution to deal with labor shortages in the food industry.
- An advanced holographic communications platform to enhance and make more realistic virtual communications such as with Zoom.
- An innovative vacuum packaging product designed to prolong food shelf life and reduce waste.
- Music tailored just for dogs to alleviate stress and separation anxiety. (Dog music sounded a little goofy until they said the catalyst for the idea to calm down and reduce the stress of dogs in shelters.)
- A speaker designed to help seniors better hear dialogue and the spoken word.
- A multitasking robot that will cook food and clean utensils in response to restaurant labor shortages.
- Ultra-thin, fire safe insulation promising easier installation and better performance.
- Glasses with automatic focusing to address changing vision problems over a lifetime.
The lone Gen AI pitch? A product that was promised to summarize market research for companies. ( I think ChatGPT has got that one already btw.) The pitch sounded like many legal tech pitches over the past year: an effort to come up with something that used the term Gen AI as a buzzword rather than offering a unique solution to a real problem.
What exactly have we seen in legal over the past year? Companies racing to supply Gen AI products or at least promise of products. Law firms screaming for products that might enable them to proclaim their use of AI. They seemed to be saying give us any Gen AI product whether it really does anything or solves anything. Many were more interested in being able to say they were all about Gen AI than really wanting to use it to solve a problem.
The result? A market flooded with unnecessary products, products that could yet do what was claimed, and overhyped capabilities. Hastily called press conferences promising big announcements that were instead used to just hawk something that was not much different than what had been previously revealed. Offerings designed more to keep up with everyone else instead of providing something new or groundbreaking. Vendors stopped thinking as much about problems that lawyers and law firms may have.
Instead of riding the Gen AI hype wave, legal vendors should take a cue from the young presenters at CES. The focus should be on first understanding lawyers and law firms’ problems and then exploring how Gen AI could be used to address those needs. The vendors instead seemed to start with a solution — Gen AI — and then try to find and define a problem the solution might solve.
The pitches were a reminder that technology should not be about technology for its own sake. It’s about solving real world problems with practical solutions. These young entrepreneurs got it right. Technology should be about addressing needs not just incorporating the latest buzzwords. There is indeed still room for the blocking and tackling of real problems with solutions that make life easier.
I don’t know if any of these things pitched this week will work. But that’s not the point. The presenters didn’t chase the hype. They prioritized real problems and thought about technology as a means to an end, not the end itself. Legal tech vendors need to do the same.
Why do I come to CES? To get just this kind of perspective.
Stephen Embry is a lawyer, speaker, blogger and writer. He publishes TechLaw Crossroads, a blog devoted to the examination of the tension between technology, the law, and the practice of law.