Witness to the Future
Editor’s note: This article first published in the Spring 2023 issue of Beyond the Meeting Room, ALHI’s printed magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication focused on sharing compelling, inspirational and educational stories from beyond the four walls of a meeting room.
Gary Shapiro has a front-row seat on world-changing innovation as President and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which produces the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), one of the world’s most influential trade shows in the space.
Shapiro traces that interest to reading lots of science fiction magazines and books over the years. He was always an avid reader of Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”—about a human who was raised by Martians on Mars and comes to Earth—and Isaac Asimov’s “three rules of robotics,” a concept in his work that essentially says robots can’t be used to harm humans.
“I’m so excited about tech being the solution to a lot of the world’s problems,” he said. “It can change the human condition.”
Shapiro started his career at CTA 32 years ago after graduating from Georgetown University Law Center.
It All Started with VCRs
The first big case he worked on was one that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, when the price of VCRs became affordable to average consumers in the 1970s.
Hollywood tried to stop all video rentals in the case that went to the Supreme Court. While Hollywood wanted to control every aspect of how its products were distributed, CES saw the innovation through a very different lens, one that opened new markets for content producers like Jane Fonda, with Jane Fonda’s Workout, by Shapiro’s account.
Shapiro ended up organizing video software retailers into a national association so they could lobby with CES. One CES member’s lawyer tried to get him fired. “She wanted nothing to do with those ‘sleazy’ video retailers,” he recalled.
The experience shaped his current philosophy on technology. “Our culture is we don’t stop new things because they’re new,” Shapiro said. “We welcome innovation. That’s what makes us better. The role of government is not to choose the winners and losers. There’s disruption all the time. The status quo is not something we can protect. That’s not what life is about.”
An Advocate for Disruption
The VCR battle was one of many examples where CTA has put a stake in the ground for disruptive technology. Shapiro was involved in another case where the incumbents tried to put the genie back in the bottle when the CD came on the scene and backburnered cassettes in the late 1980s. “The music industry started complaining,” he said. “At the age of 25 or 26, I was on national TV and testifying before Congress on these issues.”
There were many similar cases to follow. Other big issues where he found himself in the thick of the action was on setting HDTV standards—a 10-year-effort—and commercialization of the internet. “When the internet started, it was people communicating with each other and sharing information,” he said. “It was considered very unethical and wrong to do anything commercial on it. We thought the future was to have commerce on the internet.”
Among the trends that interest him these days are the Metaverse and Web 3, sustainable technology for water purification and other uses, mobility in electric vehicles for land and sea, digital health, and how technology is extending the human lifespan. Shapiro has been keeping a close eye on how technology can be used to solve shortages of doctors, nurses and physician assistants—an interest informed in part by his wife Susan Malinowski M.D.
“Technology is providing more and more solutions, like remote monitoring using devices or patches,” he said.
Under Shapiro’s leadership, the CTA has recently been working with a United Nations-affiliated body, the Human Security Unit, to find ways to protect people’s right to food, clean air and clean water using enabling technology.
Shapiro’s interest in public health helped when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. Shapiro, who had publicly spoken of the risks of pandemics five years earlier, and his board decided to shut down the in-person show and hold it online. “Seven months out, we planned for a digital show,” he said. “That allowed the hotels, airlines and everyone else to get ready for it.”
Today, the show is back in person, albeit with a more open-air and touchless environment. In 2023, it had nearly 120,000 attendees, and more than 3,200 exhibitors. No COVID testing was required for most guests, though testing was mandatory for attendees who came from China, where cases were ticking up.
“We had to set an example for the nation, if not the world, that you can go forward in the midst of COVID,” Shapiro said. “We’re not going to erase it.”
Like his favorite writers, Shapiro believes that “there are all different ways humanity can go” in a future shaped by robotics and other technologies. He’s determined to use his influence at CTA to make sure technology helps humanity.
“We know how the book ends,” he said. “We don’t know when it ends. Then we’re going to move on. There will be others who come along. The job, in my view, is to leave the next generation better off.”
What’s Next in Tech?
Here are the trends that the Consumer Technology Association’s Gary Shapiro is keeping an eye on:
Metaverse and Web 3 - The future is around shared, immersive virtual experiences. This technology will transform how we work, travel, interact and much more.
Sustainability Technology - Companies are increasingly utilizing sustainability technology and innovating at the source to offer cleaner living and technology.
Mobility - Vehicle electrification is a catalyst for advancement including driver connectivity, safety, infotainment and charging infrastructure.
Digitized Health Care - Advancements in telehealth, connected devices and wearables are ushering in a wider range of therapeutic areas.