Will Your Smart Home Drive You Crazy?
Silicon Valley increasingly envisions a future in which all of your devices—even home appliances like your fridge, oven, thermostat, and front door—are smart. These electronics are aware of their environment, connected to one another via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and able to make decisions on their own, ostensibly to your general benefit. But the future of the “internet of things”—in particular, the connected devices living in your home—will probably not be kind to humanity, at least in the short term.
To be clear, I'm not talking about robots running amuck; no one expects gadgets endowed with artificial intelligence to murder us in our homes, like the sentient home computer in the 1977 B-movie Demon Seed, or, if you're in a more Stephen King sort of mood, the lawn sprinkler in Heavy Metal. While Hollywood has no shortage of flamboyant examples of how we'll fare when pitted against devious smart gadgets, our future horror is likely to be much more mundane. If you're old enough to remember the vexing, flashing “12:00” on a VCR, you already have a hint about how the coming “internet of things” revolution may be less like battling a T-1000 from The Terminator and more like an especially frustrating afternoon with Windows XP—all day, every day.
The Promise vs. the Reality
Of course, the marketing material for many intelligent devices gushes about this brave new world. At a tech trade show recently, I walked through a “Home of the Future.” Thanks to the phone in my pocket, the front door lock sensed I was coming home and unlocked automatically. Meanwhile, the home prepped for my arrival: The thermostat cranked the temperature and the blinds in the kitchen windows were adjusted to let in more light. Alexa, living inside Amazon's smart countertop speaker, started playing music to welcome my coming. In this hypothetical home, the oven could start to pre-heat or the coffee could percolate, and a whole-house smart air freshener could begin emitting the comforting scent of Cinnamon Harvest. Home sweet automated home.
But that, as a thousand technology-related jokes go, is just the demo. Real life is always messier, and there are two obvious problems that emerge from our race to smarten household gadgets.
The Notification Problem
You likely already know that whether you have an iPhone or Android, your phone’s default is to be perpetually spammed with notifications. Your phone can't tell what’s urgent and what’s not, so you get distracted throughout the day by all of them equally: voicemails and text messages from your mom (somewhat important), severe storm warnings (potentially urgent), and suggestions to follow @KanyeOfficiaI on Twitter (pointless).
In the “internet of things” world, it's worse. Imagine 50 notifications through the day that "motion has been detected in the kitchen." Thanks, home security system, but I have a cat, and I swear I turned on "pet mode," so why is my 8-pound feline tripping the motion sensor?
And your home network of smart gadgets is just getting started. "Playing your Throwing Muses playlist," a pop-up notification from your Amazon Alexa countertop smart speaker unhelpfully reports, which would be fine, except you're still at work. Oh, that's right; the cat is in the kitchen, where you set up a "motion fence" because you thought it would be fun to have music play whenever you stepped into the room. Amid this noise, notifications about apps gone awry that you’d actually want—say that your cat’s paw prints caused the oven to begin preheating … at 11 a.m.—get lost.
This cacophony of alerts is by design. Tech makers desperately want you to be aware of what your gadgets are doing—notifications are an omnipresent reminder of the value of the product you bought, as well as an opportunity to engage you in social media, extended services, and in-app purchases. But taken together, individual products each blowing up your smartphone or laptop with non-essential notifications can quickly get aggravating. Can they be dialed down? Sure, to varying degrees, depending upon the product in question. But it's not always easy, and just as our parents couldn't make their VCR stop flashing “12:00,” we probably won't have the time to dig deep into every app and service's settings. We might just sort of … live with it.
Narrow AI is Single-Minded
And then there's the whole quandary of narrowly focused artificial intelligence and its unintended consequences.
Despite the somewhat hyperbolic warning from Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking (two brilliant people who have very little personal expertise with AI), experts assure us that we are essentially no closer to devising a general AI—computer intelligence that thinks and behaves more like a person than an algorithm—today than we were in 1945. "While the danger of existential risks from AI have a non-zero probability, I think it's very small," Peadar Coyle, an AI expert and data scientist, told me in an interview. "I think Musk and Hawking are overestimating the risks. We are a long way from highly intelligent AI with anything like human intelligence."
But narrow AI is a different matter—it means programs are designed to do one thing really well. Narrow AI is everywhere today, found in language translation systems, home security systems, home concierges like Alexa and Google Home, and in a thousand other places. What happens when your home is filled with smart devices that, like a highly dysfunctional office, are singly focused on their individual tasks with no incentive to “talk” to other gadgets about what’s going on? The result is a household filled with annoying “smart” devices that don’t behave intelligently at all. Already we’ve seen examples of how Alexa and Google Home can disrupt a household by responding to hearing their name spoken on television. Likewise, autonomous gadgets like robot vacuums don’t understand their environment well enough to know when they’re in the way—a truly smart Internet of Things, for example, would only allow the vacuum to run when you’re not at home.
Even more terrifying, what if your gadgets start “talking” behind your back, creating systems and making decisions you’re barely aware of? What if that kitschy smart hot dog cooker with integrated Wi-Fi you bought could proactively notice your smart fridge doesn't have any hotdogs in the RFI-enabled meat drawer, and order a batch from Amazon for you? And if it does, will the fridge know you need buns and relish to go with them? But more importantly, will you be able to turn off that sort of behavior in this hypothetical smart kitchen? Almost certainly, but perhaps not before you notice that you have enough weenie supplies to host a neighborhood block party.
Smart devices will amplify another common problem we have today—the risk of getting hacked. The sheer number of these gadgets we could have in our home provides a “broad vector,” as security experts would say—or, in simpler terms, many distinct avenues—for hackers to find a way onto your computer systems. Hackers can already take advantage of sloppy security in devices like webcams and home security systems. Criminals recently took this basic approach—gaining access to an entire network through one less-secure node—by hacking into an Internet-connected fish tank. And only recently, scientists demonstrated that devices like Alexa and Google Home can hear and react to ultrasonic commands undetectable by human ears, suggesting that playing a malicious ad on your phone could possibly let hackers find their way into your home network.
If you enjoy installing security patches on a handful of devices today, you’ll love doing it to dozens of gadgets scattered around your home in just a few years.
You can attribute much of these hypothetical issues to the fact that the “internet of things” universe lacks any sort of central dashboard—a universal place that all of these devices are controlled and managed from.
Right now, it's every gadget for itself, independently spamming you with all sorts of banal notifications. And while you can probably live with a few annoying pings each day from one over-eager app or device, multiply that by 10. Or 20. As long as all those products operate in a vacuum, each assuming they are the only smart gadgets you care about, they'll make next year's smart home far more trouble than it's worth.
While all your gadgets share a common space—your phone, your notification tray, your attention, your house—no one owns it. No one cares about it, and no one cares for it. Except you, of course. And in the Home of the Future, do you really envision yourself spending all your time micromanaging a bunch of devices? If not, make sure that every device you sync with works for you, not the other way around.