Is Your Home Smart?

"Smart House.” The term evokes memories of a late 90s Disney Channel feature film. A thirteen-year old boy, hoping to help his dad run a household and raise his younger siblings after his mother passes away, enters a contest and wins a computerized home that cooks and cleans and takes care of other routine domestic tasks. The catch? The cyber maid named PAT takes on a life of her own, overbearingly attempting to fulfill the emotional role of a mother and a wife. I remember watching this movie in third or fourth grade and considering it a strange, futuristic film that surpassed realistic expectations. But technological developments in the past decade suggest a world resembling Disney’s Smart House is well within reach.

The idea of machines mimicking cognitive functions cropped up as early as the 5th Century BCE. Greek mythology tells stories of Hephaestus, a blacksmith who manufactured mechanical servants. During the Middle Ages, rumors circulated that alchemists could place mind into matter. By the 19th century, science fiction writers had published works that brought notions of synthetic brains to a more public sphere, a fundamental example being Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It was the development of programmable electronic computers in the 1940s, however, that inspired a handful of scientists to formally convene at Dartmouth College and discuss the trajectory of a new field they decided to call artificial intelligence (AI).

While an ambitious plan to construct a machine as intelligent as a human in one generation was at first funded by the U.S. and British governments, its failure brought AI research and development to a temporary halt. But in the 1980s, the Japanese re-activated the field by focusing on expert systems: software that is programmed with specific knowledge to assist a narrow professional domain. For instance, a program could emulate an auto mechanic’s knowledge in order to more efficiently diagnose automobile problems.

Since the turn of the century, the field of AI has been largely geared towards automating goods for the everyday consumer. Software developers have begun to embed popular devices with connectivity, a process referred to as the “Internet of Things” or IoT. The Apple Watch, for instance, has transformed a simple timekeeper into a device synced to one’s bank accounts and text messages.

At the forefront of marketed AI and IoT connectivity is smart home technology – the domain that has turned Disney’s fantastical home into a promising future design. Domestic appliances such as light bulbs, thermostats, refrigerators, and entertainment systems have grown a brain. Not only do these devices collect information about the user via auditory and visual sensors, but they also make predictions based on demographic, geographic, and temporal data found online. These devices can therefore adapt to a homeowner’s behavior in a sophisticated way that should make life more efficient, more productive, and more pleasant.

In order to discover more about smart home technology and its implications, I spoke with Edward Felten, the Director of the Center for Information Technology Policy and a Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Felten also leads an undergraduate seminar on artificial intelligence and public policy, which examines the impact of automation on the economy and decodes the ethics that determine how it is regulated and controlled. He considers how smart home tech – AI in a very personal sphere – might influence interactions with our environment and consequently the market.

Professor Felten began by explaining how computers, performing tasks that humans conventionally have, might alter the job market. While the greatest impact will probably be with respect to autonomous cars – the 2% of the American workforce that drive cars for a living could be replaced with machines – smart home technology could also influence our careers. In the short term, the research, development, installation, and maintenance of automated appliances increases human employment opportunities. However, if smart home technology takes off such that domestic chores become automated – as in the case of the Roomba – employment opportunities in cleaning services could see a decline. There is also the potential for janitorial staff in larger institutions like schools and corporate offices to be replaced.

Smart home technology will not only influence the economy by altering the job market, but also by stimulating consumerism. The development of innovative gadgets creates a market for trendier models of devices consumers already own, but it primarily contributes to consumerism by cultivating a demand for entirely new products.

While domestic products don’t have the interface to advertise user-specific products the way a laptop or smartphone might, they do facilitate extraneous purchases. For instance, the NPD Group, a market research firm, found that owners of Echo spent about 10% more on Amazon products after purchasing the smart speakers. Why? Perhaps because “Alexa” makes it easier to get what one wants. Rather than logging on to a website or driving to a store, one can simply state their request verbally and expect it to arrive by mail in a matter of days. A six-year old girl in Texas used this facility to her advantage, ordering a $150 dollhouse and four pounds of cookies, the arrival of which took her parents by surprise. Even my twenty-two-year-old brother inadvertently ordered a MacBook Pro through my mom’s new Echo.

In addition, smart home technology enables consumers to replenish groceries or other supplies with ease. Refrigerators, for instance, are being designed to not only monitor for bacteria or spoilage, but also keep track of food stocks and independently make grocery store delivery orders. Other devices could similarly monitor the use of paper towels or cleaning supplies and make sure they are always at the homeowner’s disposal. It is true that technology will not drastically change the rate at which one buys groceries or other routine supplies, but this sort of technology does eliminate opportunities to improvise with recycled or otherwise forgotten materials. Have you ever made a delicious meal of the spare can of corn, head of lettuce, and leftover chicken because the fridge was otherwise empty? Such an instance of innovative and efficient use of resources could be lost to smart home technology.

While increased consumerism can contribute to a healthier economy, it can also speed up the consumption of natural resources in a way our planet can no longer afford. Luckily, smart home technology also has the capacity to reduce energy use. Correlating electronic light with the user’s habits eliminates the possibility of forgetting to flip off the switch. If a thermometer learns that a homeowner prefers cooler temperatures at night, it can simultaneously increase the consumer’s comfort and decrease waste. As long as the technology itself can be developed in sustainable ways, smart homes are an environmentally friendly proposition.

Smart home technology therefore has the potential to impact the economy in a number of ways. By creating opportunities to develop and install technology and by automating domestic chores, AI contributes to a shifting job market. By simplifying and systematizing the process of making purchases, the technology also stimulates consumerism. And by regulating the use of utilities like heat and light, smart homes can reduce the use of natural resources. There is potential for these developments to be very productive and increase efficiency such that the standard of living increases. However, it is important to consider whether the benefits will be evenly distributed or concentrated among those who least need them. A certain degree of regulation is therefore necessary to maximize the benefits of artificial intelligence.

There are privacy issues inherent to devices that operate on the premise of gathering information about the consumer. When visual and auditory sensors in a home are connected to the internet, it is important to consider to whom those eyes and ears belong. Most of these devices have systems in place to control the flow of information and prevent personal data from leaving one’s rooftop. Amazon’s Echo, for instance, automatically downloads software updates to defend against security threats and only takes commands after hearing the word “Alexa.” Nevertheless, sophisticated hackers have the capacity to bypass these systems and absorb sensitive data like financial or health information. Regulation could not only control the development and marketing of technology that breaches one’s security, but also control the distribution such that it does not widen our nation’s wealth gap.

Although there may be some time before we can live in a home straight out of the pages of your favorite sci-fi novel, we are undoubtedly steadily progressing in that direction. As we slowly integrate more and more “smart” devices into our daily lives, we should appreciate all of the conveniences and benefits they provide, yet remain wary of the increasing dangers of such a connected world.