By Paul Miller December 9, 2014

AI for the home

Are we smart yet?

In a previous post I established that not only are rogue AIs unlikely to murder us in our sleep in the near future, but in fact they have no idea who we are or what we want. This is important to keep in mind when purchasing a "smart" product for your home. Exactly how smart is it? Because if it behaves like it has you all figured out, but it's actually a big dummy, then you have a problem. Especially in the home, you want a certain level of safety, privacy, and predictability from your electronics. Convenience is nice, but it's usually secondary.

Predictability, in the computer world, works something like this:

if (this one condition is true) {do this one thing}

Stack a whole bunch of those conditional statements on top of each other and you end up with software.

So, when is software like this most effective? When the condition is easily observed by a computer, and when you always want the computer to take the same action when that condition (or series of conditions) is met.

An interesting example is Nest. The input condition is easily observed by the computer: you choose a temperature with the dial, and Nest observes what time of day it is when you do that. But the output is more complex: Nest attempts to build a profile of your temperature preferences. If you're erratic in your preferences, or if other family members are fiddling with the dial behind your back, the schedule Nest builds for you is likely to be unhelpful. Thankfully, you can customize your Nest schedule, or even turn off the Auto-Schedule feature entirely, but that sort of defeats the point of Nest.

At least with Nest, the input condition is computer-friendly. But what if it isn't? Anything that operates with voice commands is, sadly, an unsolved problem. A computer is trying to turn human speech — which comes in all sorts of volume, pitch, direction, clarity, and specificity — into a single computer-friendly instruction. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Amazon have made amazing strides in their ability to recognize voice, and yet they misunderstand my speech roughly half the time. The Xbox One is marvelously hands-free as a media device, and I usually use it without a controller or remote, but I still find the voice commands incredibly frustrating whenever they go wrong.

Canary is watching over youCanary is watching over you

And what if the input is even more vague? Canary is a camera in a box that "intelligently" monitors your home. It's designed to identify typical use for a room — like, times when humans are supposed to be there — and alert you to atypical use — like, times when robbers are breaking in. This could be a terrible idea. But maybe it will work. I look forward to reading some reviews when it's widely released. What's good is that Canary doesn't have to be as smart as it sounds; its job is to recognize patterns, it doesn't have to really understand them. It doesn't have to be perfect to be useful, unlike speech recognition.

Sadly, most "standard" forms of the smart home — connected lightbulbs, locks, and plugs — are bad, boring, fragmented, or all of the above. Apple and Google have each promised a unifying, elegant solution, but until they deliver you'll need to dedicate a whole page of apps to operate each different vendor's products.

One attempt to solve this fragmentation is Wink, a spinoff of crowdsourced product site Quirky, who offers a $79 hub and a single app to control smart home products from GE (who helped build the hub), Honeywell, Philips, and some third party devices. Wink offers a cautionary tale, sadly: if you're going to control your lightbulb over the internet, the lightbulbs-over-the-internet service has to actually work. Customers have reported endless problems with product setup, reliability, and service uptime. Wink does seem to be actively improving, and even has a site dedicated to service uptime, but it's worth thinking about whether you ever want to consider "uptime" in relation to your lightbulbs, plugs, and thermostat.

If it behaves like it has you all figured out, but it's actually a big dummy, then you have a problem

The frequent stupidity of the "smart home" won't last forever. Once there are real standards, and good software, we'll enter into a glorious Jetsons age. In the future your home will warm up when you get near, flick on the lights right when you need them, and have Netflix primed to begin season 12 of House of Cards the second your Star Trek-style replicator finishes printing your meal.

But that not only requires both good software and hardware, but software and hardware that all speaks the same language — which these days means a standard sent down from on high by Apple or Google.

I hate to be a stick-in-the-mud, or shun the new and shiny, but I also like my lightbulbs to work predictably, which is why I'm keeping my home dumb for the time being. The ideal of a software-optimized home is a good one, but until that software is either perfect or perfectly constrained, it's not usually worth the hassle.

About Paul Miller

That guy who left the internet for a year