Digital Home Technology through the Cloud: Enabling Paradise or Potential Prison?
“Alexa order my grocery list and add one bag of peanut M&Ms to it.” “Alexa, cancel my events for Tuesday and call an Uber for me in two hours.” With a few simple sentences, I had saved myself about 3 hours of work, allowing me to peacefully enjoy my breakfast as I prepared to pick up my parents later that day. While it felt like another day on spring break for me now, I knew that such an episode would have been impossible until quite recently.
Growing up, I loved science fiction as it imagined a future where all my mundane chores would be automated and done at the command of my voice. I realize now that I was not the only one. From the earliest drawings of Da Vinci’s automated hammer, to children’s cartoons of the 90s such as The Jetsons showing a virtual assistant dressed like a nanny, humans throughout history have imagined a future where their lives are easier through automation. (Rabin) Today, we have reached new heights in achieving this dream and come close to the idea of a true Digital Home. This is a place where one doesn’t have to do anything manually, but can instead issue voice or gesture commands to control everything in and around the house. (Mushtaq)
The possibilities surrounding Digital Home Technology (DHT) are endless. Tedious tasks such as cleaning the floor or doing laundry can now be done at a simple command which releases a floor robot vacuum or automatically starts the washing machine, returning hours of free time back to busy individuals and lowering stress levels in households across America. Other automations such as switching off lights and heating systems when one leaves a room, recording television for later viewing and setting food out for pets are just few examples of small integrations that can add up to save owners time and money. (Rabin)
All these systems must be connected to a central system that can receive user instructions. Previously this was done by the appliance manufacturers or home builders themselves which led to very unintuitive and difficult to use hardware that often ended up being more hassle than the problem it was trying to solve. Recently, Silicon Valley companies have entered the field in a big way and have solved this issue. Internet companies that are creating DHT such as Amazon and Google realize the importance of making the user experience as easy to use as possible and have come up with artificial intelligences that power their smart home systems. These, to a great extent, imitate a real person, allowing homeowners and residents to interact using trigger words such as “Hey Alexa” or “Ok Google” and issuing a command just as they would to a butler or personal valet. They can also perform actions through their smartphones if they are too far from the assistant’s base device or not at home. (Meola)
The potential for DHT doesn’t stop there; in the quest to make homes smarter, companies have added features into their implementations of DHT that create new forms of entertainment and greatly expand homeowner safety. Amazon’s Alexa, a virtual home assistant, has the ability to tell its user stories, jokes and even play voice based video games. (Taylor) Google’s “Home” AI combined with Nest Cameras can alert users what type of activity is going on in their homes and decide to let trusted users enter while keeping unidentified persons out. (Meola)
We have in part to thank the work done on Natural Language Processing (NLP), Cloud Computing (CC) and improved network capabilities that allow small computers to be embedded into these everyday items and communicate with large servers that can process our commands. These devices put together create a network of “smart” objects in the house, also known as the “Internet of Things” (IoT). This means that sensors within the house can tell who is in a specific room of the house and adjust things to the persons tastes. An example of this is the new Bose speaker system that can link to your Spotify playlists to play different songs while you are in the shower and another set of songs if you have guests over for dinner. This can make the house more entertaining and a more fun place to live.
I still feel we are in the novelty stage of these devices as they are still limited in function and are still too pricey for the average home. While there are many devices that one can buy and set up right now, the benefits they provide are still very superficial and do not solve the bigger problem of a human presence guiding these systems. In this sense, DHT is still semi-automated as it requires human action to trigger its actions. A true smart home would be subtler and make the house self-regulating and maintaining. I believe this technology is yet to come and it will take place in the form of an embedded AI that is part of the houses construction. To draw from science fiction, the movie I-Robot with Will Smith represents this accurately with each house having a unique “personality” that accomplishes tasks for the owner without any set up.
Of course, as any new technology comes mainstream there will be socio-economic consequences that societies will have to grow accustomed to or solve. One of the fundamental themes of the American dream is said to be the idea of owning a home and raising a family. If one takes away all the work from it, some argue that this could reduce the pride and satisfaction in doing things for your family or owning a home. Another thing to consider would be the unemployment that greater homes automation would cause. Household help, from gardening to babysitting, are still modest income jobs that a lot of people rely on. By automating all household tasks there could be large levels of unemployment. One positive effect is that resource usage in homes would be reduced as DHT would monitor and control things like electricity and water use.
It is no shocker that some journalists refer to DHT as a concept that could change the fundamental meaning of being human. (Meola) While it makes our lives more convenient, it can be argued that an over indulgence in such technology will make us lazier and unable to do things on our own, causing us to be weaker and less independent as a society. Another aspect to think about, as DHT gets more advanced, are the security risks associated with anything open facing with the internet. Just as computer systems in factories or data centers get hacked, the implications of a digital home being hacked could be extremely dangerous to the person living inside. They could be locked inside with no way to communicate, starved or even have the air supplies cut of if somebody wished to harm them.
Regardless of what we think about these technologies, there is no denying their arrival. The use cases are growing and many people will be enticed by the added convince it can bring to their lives. Children growing up today are the first to be exposed to it and many think of it as “magic” and cannot imagine another way for tasks in the house to be done. This is similar to how many of us cannot imagine searching for information without the use of the Internet or Wikipedia. It is important then, as we enjoy our toast and coffee being prepared by “magic” in the morning, to study DHT’s adoption closely and remain vigilant about the risks it adds to modern homes; for just like any other technology in its infancy there are plenty of issues yet to be resolved.
MadaTech. “Automatic Pile Driver.” Leonardo Da Vinci’s Automation – Automatic Pile Driver. Madatech Inc., 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.
Meola, Andrew. “How IoT & Smart Home Automation Will Change the Way We Live.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 19 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.
Mushtaq, Noor Ul. “CCTV Smart-homes Home Automation.” Industrial IoT. CCTV Institute, 18 Nov. 2016. Web. 13 Mar. 2017.
Rabin, Ruhani. “Be Like the Jetsons: Smart Home Automation for 2017.” RuhaniRabin.com. RuhaniRabin, 09 Feb. 2017. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.
Taylor Martin March 16, 2016 5:00 PM PDT. “5 Fun Games You Can Play with the Amazon Echo.” CNET. CBS Interactive, Inc., 16 Mar. 2016. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.
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