Home automation. A reality check.

Home automation is much in the news at the moment now that companies are making the chips-with-everything kit and the various apps.

Like 3D, home automation comes and goes. Superficially it is attractive, but the novelty wears thin quickly. It has been possible since the 1950s to automate a home. Bill Gates notably built a hugely expensive automated home 20 years ago. There are rarely any new ideas in the field, just a lot of recycling and minor tweaking.  Way back in 2000, I wrote what was even then just a recycling summary blog-type piece for my website bringing together a lot of already well-worn ideas. And yet it could easily have come from this years papers. Here it is, go to the end of the italicised text for my updating commentary:

Chips everywhere

 August 2000

 The chips-with-everything lifestyle is almost inevitable. Almost everything can be improved by adding some intelligence to it, and since the intelligence will be cheap to make, we will take advantage of this potential. In fact, smart ways of doing things are often cheaper than dumb ways, a smart door lock may be much cheaper than a complex key based lock. A chip is often cheaper than dumb electronics or electromechanics. However, electronics no longer has a monopoly of chip technology. Some new chips incorporate tiny electromechanical or electrochemical devices to do jobs that used to be done by more expensive electronics. Chips now have the ability to analyse chemicals, biological matter or information. They are at home processing both atoms and bits.

 These new families of chips have many possible uses, but since they are relatively new, most are probably still beyond our imagination. We already have seen the massive impact of chips that can do information processing. We have much less intuition regarding the impact in the physical world.

 Some have components that act as tiny pumps to allow drugs to be dispensed at exactly the right rate. Others have tiny mirrors that can control laser beams to make video displays. Gene chips have now been built that can identify the presence of many different genes, allowing applications from rapid identification to estimation of life expectancy for insurance reasons. (They are primarily being use to tell whether people have a genetic disorder so that their treatment can be determined correctly).

 It is easy to predict some of the uses such future chips might have around the home and office, especially when they become disposably cheap. Chips on fruit that respond to various gases may warn when the fruit is at its best and when it should be disposed of. Other foods might have electronic use-by dates that sound an alarm each time the cupboard or fridge is opened close to the end of their life. Other chips may detect the presence of moulds or harmful bacteria. Packaging chips may have embedded cooking instructions that communicate directly with the microwave, or may contain real-time recipes that appear on the kitchen terminal and tell the chef exactly what to do, and when. They might know what other foodstuffs are available in the kitchen, or whether they are in stock locally and at what price. Of course, these chips could also contain pricing and other information for use by the shops themselves, replacing bar codes and the like and allowing the customer just to put all the products in a smart trolley and walk out, debiting their account automatically. Chips on foods might react when the foods are in close proximity, warning the owner that there may be odour contamination, or that these two could be combined well to make a particularly pleasant dish. Cooking by numbers. In short, the kitchen could be a techno-utopia or nightmare depending on taste.

 Mechanical switches can already be replaced by simple sensors that switch on the lights when a hand is waved nearby, or when someone enters a room. In future, switches of all kinds may be rather more emotional, glowing, changing colour or shape, trying to escape, or making a noise when a hand gets near to make them easier or more fun to use. They may respond to gestures or voice commands, or eventually infer what they are to do from something they pick up in conversation. Intelligent emotional objects may become very commonplace. Many devices will act differently according to the person making the transaction. A security device will allow one person entry, while phoning the police when someone else calls if they are a known burglar. Others may receive a welcome message or be put in videophone contact with a resident, either in the house or away.

 It will be possible to burglar proof devices by registering them in a home. They could continue to work while they are near various other fixed devices, maybe in the walls, but won’t work when removed. Moving home would still be possible by broadcasting a digitally signed message to the chips. Air quality may be continuously analysed by chips, which would alert to dangers such as carbon monoxide, or excessive radiation, and these may also monitor for the presence of bacteria or viruses or just pollen. They may be integrated into a home health system which monitors our wellbeing on a variety of fronts, watching for stress, diseases, checking our blood pressure, fitness and so on. These can all be unobtrusively monitored. The ultimate nightmare might be that our fridge would refuse to let us have any chocolate until the chips in our trainers have confirmed that we have done our exercise for the day.

 Some chips in our home would be mobile, in robots, and would have a wide range of jobs from cleaning and tidying to looking after the plants. Sensors in the soil in a plant pot could tell the robot exactly how much water and food the plant needs. The plant may even be monitored by sensors on the stem or leaves. 

The global positioning system allows chips to know almost exactly where they are outside, and in-building positioning systems could allow positioning down to millimetres. Position dependent behaviour will therefore be commonplace. Similarly, events can be timed to the precision of atomic clock broadcasts. Response can be super-intelligent, adjusting appropriately for time, place, person, social circumstances, environmental conditions, anything that can be observed by any sort of sensor or predicted by any sort of algorithm. 

With this enormous versatility, it is very hard to think of anything where some sort of chip could not make an improvement. The ubiquity of the chip will depend on how fast costs fall and how valuable a task is, but we will eventually have chips with everything.

So that was what was pretty everyday thinking in the IT industry in 2000. The articles I’ve read recently mostly aren’t all that different.

What has changed since is that companies trying to progress it are adding new layers of value-skimming. In my view some at least are big steps backwards. Let’s look at a couple.

Networking the home is fine, but doing so so that you can remotely adjust the temperature across the network or run a bath from the office is utterly pointless. It adds the extra inconvenience of having to remember access details to an account, regularly updating security details, and having to recover when the company running it loses all your data to a hacker, all for virtually no benefit.

Monitoring what the user does and sending the data back to the supplier company so that they can use it for targeted ads is another huge step backwards. Advertising is already at the top of the list of things we already have quite enough. We need more resources, more food supply, more energy, more of a lot of stuff. More advertising we can do without. It adds costs to everything and wastes our time, without giving anything back.

If a company sells home automation stuff and wants to collect the data on how I use it, and sell that on to others directly or via advertising services, it will sit on their shelf. I will not buy it, and neither will most other people. Collecting the data may be very useful, but I want to keep it, and I don’t want others to have access to it. I want to pay once, and then own it outright with full and exclusive control and data access. I do not want to have to create any online accounts, not have to worry about network security or privacy, not have to download frequent software updates, not have any company nosing into my household and absolutely definitely no adverts.

Another is to migrate interfaces for things onto our smartphones or tablets. I have no objection to having that as an optional feature, but I want to retain a full physical switch or control. For several years in BT, I lived in an office with a light that was controlled by a remote control, with no other switch. The remote control had dozens of buttons, yet all it did was turn the light on or off. I don’t want to have to look for a remote control or my phone or tablet in order to turn on a light or adjust temperature. I would much prefer a traditional light switch and thermostat. If they communicate by radio, I don’t care, but they do need to be physically present in the same place all the time.

Automated lights that go on and off as people enter or leave a room are also a step backwards. I have fallen victim once to one in a work toilet. If you sit still for a couple of minutes, they switch the lights off. That really is not welcome in an internal toilet with no windows.

The traditional way of running a house is not so demanding that we need a lot of assistance anyway. It really isn’t. I only spend a few seconds every day turning lights on and off or adjusting temperature. It would take longer than that on average to maintain apps to do it automatically. As for saving energy by turning heating on and off all the time, I think that is over-valued as a feature too. The air in a house doesn’t take much heat and if the building cools down, it takes a lot to get it back up again. That actually makes more strain on a boiler than running at a relatively constant low output. If the boiler and pumps have to work harder more often, they are likely to last less time, and savings would be eradicated.

So, all in all, while I can certainly see merits in adding chips to all sorts of stuff, I think their merits in home automation is being grossly overstated in the current media enthusiasm, and the downside being far too much ignored. Yes you can, but most people won’t want to and those who do probably won’t want to do nearly as much as is being suggested, and even those won’t want all the pain of doing so via service providers adding unnecessary layers or misusing their data.

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One response to “Home automation. A reality check.

  1. Pingback: Futureseek Daily Link Review; 16 January 2014 | Futureseek Link Digest

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