I don't think the smart home concept is just about having the latest cool technology or containing some smart stuff. And many of the most commonly discussed examples of smart technology in the home seem to be merely modest improvements on earlier technologies, rather than something entirely new.
Let's look at some smart devices you might have in your home. Programmable thermostats have been available for ages, adjusting heating and/or air conditioning to maintain a comfortable temperature at certain times of day. Modern heating systems can now offer separate controls for each room, and be programmed to reduce your total energy consumption: such systems are typically marketed as
intelligentsystems. So whatever smart technology is doing in this area looks more like useful improvement than radical change.
Or how about remote control functionality. Remote control devices have been around for a long time, especially for couch potatoes who wished to change TV channels without the effort of walking a few feet across the room. Now we have voice-activated controls, for people who can't even be bothered to search under the cushions for the remote control device. Voice activation may be a bit more technologically sophisticated than pushing buttons, and some artificial intelligence may be required to recognize and interpret the voice commands, but it's basically the same need that is being satisfied here.
Or how about a chatbot to answer your questions? In most cases, the answers aren't hard-wired into the device, but are pulled from some source outside the home. So the chatbot is merely a communication device, as if you had a telephone hotline to Stephen Fry only faster and always available, like several million Stephen Fry clones working in parallel around the clock. (You may choose any other knowledgeable and witty celebrity if you prefer.)
And the idea that having a chatbot device in your home makes the home itself smart is like thinking that having a smartphone in the pocket of your trousers turns them into
smart trousers. Or that having Stephen Fry's phone number attached to your fridge door turns it into a
Of course, a smart system may have multiple components - different classes of device. You might install an intelligent security system, using cameras and other devices, to recognize and admit your children and pets, while keeping the home safe from unwanted visitors.
But surely the concept of smart home means more than just having a number of smart parts or subsystems, it implies that the home itself manifests some intelligence at the whole-system level. The primary requirement seems to be that these smart devices are connected, not to the world outside the home, but to each other, enabling them to orchestrate things. Not just home automation, but seamless home automation.
For example, suppose I make my home responsible for getting me to work on time. My home computer could monitor the traffic reports or disruption on public transport, check with my car whether I needed to allow extra time to refuel, send a message to my alarm clock to wake me up at the optimal time, having also instructed the heating system when to switch the boiler on.
Assuming I do not wish my movements to be known in advance by burglars and kidnappers, all of these messages need to be secure against eavesdropping. It isn't obvious to me why it would be necessary to transmit these messages via servers outside my house. Yes I know it's called the internet of things, but does that mean everything has to go via the internet?
Well yes apparently it does, if we follow the recently announced Connected Home over IP (CHIP) standards, to be developed jointly by Amazon, Apple, Google, and most of the other key players in the smart home market.
Many of those who commented on the Register article raised concerns about encryption. It seems unlikely at this point that the tech giants will be keen on end-end encryption, because surely they are going to want to feed your data into the hungry mouths of their machine learning starlings. So whatever security measures are included in the CHIP standards, they will probably represent a compromise, appearing to take security seriously but not seriously impeding the commercial and strategic interests of the vendors. Smart for them, not necessarily for us.
Sometimes it seems that the people who benefit most from the smart home are not those actually living in these homes but service providers, using your data to keep an eye on you. For example, landlords:
Smart home technology is an alluring proposition for the apartment industry: Provide renters with a home that integrates with and responds to their lifestyle, and increase rents, save on energy, and collect useful resident population data in return.Kayla Devon
Internet-connected locks and facial recognition systems have raised privacy concerns among tenants across the country. A sales pitch directed at landlords by a smart-home security company indicates that the technology could help them raise rental prices and potentially get people evicted.Alfred Ng
We should pass a law that would hold smart access companies to the highest possible standard while making certain that their technology is safe, secure and reliable for tenants.Michael McKee
Energy companies have been pushing smart meters and other smart technologies, supposedly to help you reduce your energy bills, but also to get involved in other aspects of your life. For example, Constellation promotes the benefits of smart home technology for maintaining the independence of the elderly, while Karen Jorden mentions the possibility of remote surveillance by family members living elsewhere.
Smart technology that recognizes patterns, such as the morning coffee-making routine mentioned earlier, could come in handy when those patterns are broken, perhaps alerting grown children that something may be amiss with an elderly parent.Karen Jordan
As Ashlee Clark Thompson points out, this kind of remote surveillance can benefit the children as well as the parents, providing peace of mind as well as reducing the need for physical visits to check up.
And doubtless the energy companies have other ideas as well. According to Ross Clark
Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks has proposed a system in which it will be able to turn off certain devices in our homes ... when the supply of electricity is too small to meet demand.
So we keep coming back to the fundamental ethical question: Whom shall the smart home serve?
Dieter Bohn, Situation: there are too many competing smart home standards. Surely a new one will fix it, right? (The Verge, 19 Dec 2019)
Ross Clark, The critics of smart meters were right all along (Telegraph, 19 September 2020) HT @tprstly
Constellation, Smart Homes Allow the Aging to Maintain Independence (published 20 July 2018 updated 13 August 2018)
Kayla Devon, The Lure of the Smart Apartment (MFE, 31 March 2016)
Karen Jordan, Set It And Forget It: The Lure Of Smart Apartments (Forbes, 28 August 2017)
Kieren McCarthy, The IoT wars are over, maybe? Amazon, Apple, Google give up on smart-home domination dreams, agree to develop common standards (The Register, 18 Dec 2019)
Michael McKee, Your Landlord Could Know That You’re Not at Home Right Now (New York Times, 17 December 2019)
Alfred Ng, Smart home tech can help evict renters, surveillance company tells landlords (CNET, 25 October 2019)
Ashlee Clark Thompson, Persuading your older parents to take the smart home leap (CNET, 11 April 2017)
Related posts: Understanding the Value Chain of the Internet of Things (June 2015), Defeating the Device Paradigm (Oct 2015), Hidden Functionality (February 2019), Towards Chatbot Ethics - Whom does the chatbot serve? (May 2019), Driverless cars - Whom does the technology serve? (May 2019), The Road Less Travelled - Whom does the algorithm serve? (June 2019)
Updated 19 September 2020