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.

Works Cited

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, 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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6 comments on “Digital Home Technology through the Cloud: Enabling Paradise or Potential Prison?”

  1. Very good job Farhan! I just have a question. You said that all smart appliances are still too pricey to be found in every household, and you also stated that the use of these machines is expected to increase. Let’s assume that in the future IoT becomes more accessible. The use of them increases. Thus, unemployment increases too.
    If unemployment increases, wouldn’t it reduce the use of IoT? It would mean that fewer and fewer households would be using it (because of a higher rate of unemployment). If fewer people use IoT that means that now manual labor is on demand once again, and unemployment decreases. The effects are reversed!
    If my observation is correct that would mean that we should be expecting a cycle, one where unemployment and IoT increase and decrease periodically.
    What do you think, are there any errors in my logic, or does it sound somewhat plausible?


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    1. Hi Lucas, I think you are generating a link between unemployment and IoT devices when one does not exist. Yes currently these devices are a niche product too expensive for regular use but as the technology proliferates regular household appliances will become “smarter”. (See Samsung fridges or any new TV) One doesn’t simply stop using household appliances if they are laid off. I would argue that the next generations of IoT devices will be indispensable and we won’t be able to imagine a world without it – similar to how we take for granted having high speed internet and oceans of information at our fingertips.

  2. Dear Farhan, your article got me thinking about 3 topics:
    1- If the most advance government organizations are suffering from hacking, and the villains of the hacking world are improving their techniques and technologies every day, how are we going to secure our homes as they become more and more connected?
    2- Related to the previos comment and your reply, as many futurists have said, I believe people may transit from having a job to having a role in society, whereas the transition may be chaotic till most people find their role and society organizes all the changes.
    3- And here I kind of contradict myself: All this products will have to be created by humans, and programmed by humans, but then, the limitations of humans reflect on the products and solutions, so I guess also new jobs will be created to optimize and improve the brains of the human behind this new technologies.

    Thanks for getting me thinking so much about this!



  3. I agree that prices are limiting factor in the adoption of products if you decide to have a full “smart” home. Prices for devices such as the Amazon Echo, Echo Show, HomePod, Google Home or even the Echo Look which is a fashion advisor are still high for popular consumption. However, Amazon released a less expensive model with the Echo Dot. It costs $49.99 which is one third of the Amazon Echo and one fourth of the Echo Show. It provides most of the capabilities of the other two models and it is also powered by Alexa. Like you said, this technology is still in its infancy like most IoT devices. I believe that in the years to come, the main limitations in the adoption of these devices will be the security risks associated with personal information storage and channels of communication between devices and cloud services. Since these devices rely on automation and network connections, unintended actions could occur that would create problems to users’ homes, capital or health. However, I believe that as more competitors start to get into this market, more people will start to acquire these devices. One of the main things I believe will play into the reduction of costs in developing new products is having big processor companies work on new processors for these devices such as Intel(providing Amazon develop chips for their high-end models), NVIDIA(creating GPUs for self-driving cars) and AMD(creating GPUs that allow a richer experience for users using IoT devices with graphical interfaces). Having these companies develop chips for these devices will definitely create a bigger ecosystem allowing more companies to develop their own products that could be more affordable to the users.

  4. Hi Farhan – Great post. Looks like some good input from others as well on the economics of DHT – whether automation will drive unemployment, for example. I think that there are many ways that automation will increase productivity, and employment too.

    About ten years ago, I was having a conversation with a doctor who asked, “If technology is supposed to make everything easier, why was am I busier now than I ever was before?” During the discussion, we found that technology truly had automated many tasks for him, but that just meant that he used the time to accomplish things he couldn’t get to before. It’s easy for us to understand how automation will replace work performed by humans, but we should also consider that automation allows us to work on things that we wouldn’t get to otherwise.

    On the home automation front, I have several Google Home devices in my home, and have started building up peripherals to fully automate my home. It’s true that I can be lazy and just say, “Hey Google, turn on the lights” instead of walking around and flipping switches. On the other hand, I can say, “Hey Google, tell me about my day” and receive information about the weather, my schedule and a customized news feed while I make and eat my breakfast. Prior to the automation, I only searched for this information sporadically because it didn’t fit as easily in my routine. That’s a small step forward, but it keeps me more informed and allows me to use my screen time on other tasks. In small ways (so far), I find that I am getting more done because the barrier is lower.

  5. Hi Farhan,

    On the question of automation causing unemployment, I feel that that it is not that big of an issue. One can argue that automation will replace humans in different job positions, but it will also open new job markets. I mean if automated devices end up replacing humans, then someone has to build, maintain and research on them. This will provide new job positions in the field.

    Secondly, I want to talk a bit about security of IoT devices. The Distributed Denial of Service (DDos) attack last year on OVH and Dyn, was based on thousands of compromised IoT devices. It is true that the Google and Amazon devices have pretty good security but then there are other cheaper ones in the market that may have much lower security. Maybe we need some kind of basic security standard that all devices must meet to be allowed to connect to the internet so that they are not easily compromised. Not sure if such a standard can be implemented. Maybe we can have some sort of testing system through which each device is passed through a series of “hacking” test to see how well it holds up.

    MS&E 238A


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