The Bright Side of Smart-Home Silly Season
The Internet of Things is one of the gadget industry's brightest hopes in a world that's saturated with smartphones. Sensors are cheap, and digital giants such as Amazon and Google are aggressively pushing their voice-command technology. The resulting hype, however, spawns inventions that should only exist in the corny worlds of science fiction.
At this point, the IoT market isn't well-quantified. Intel says there were 15 billion connected IoT devices in the world in 2015 -- a number the chipmaker predicts will increase to 200 billion by 2020. Gartner, the tech consultancy, counted fewer than 5 billion devices in 2015 and predicted fewer than 21 billion by 2020. There's a good reason for the gap: No one can predict which objects consumers and businesses will want to connect to the internet. So businesses are trying nearly everything, and showing it off this week at The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas:
- GeniCan: scans empty cereal boxes, reorders them through an app.
- FridgeCam: sends photos to your phone, helps write grocery lists.
- Catspad: dispenses food and water for a full month through an app, tracks kitty caloric intake.
- Sleep Number 360: a bed that tracks your sleep and, of course, sends the data to an app.
- U: a shower that, you guessed it, is controlled with an app.
- A line of "smart" home appliances from Samsung, including a touchscreen fridge that responds to voice commands and app-governed cooktops, washer-dryers and vacuum cleaners.
- A connected lawnmower (the app is for maintenance purposes and for ordering parts) and a tool chest you can lock and unlock with an app.
- A hairbrush from L'Oreal that measures "hair health" and reports it to an app that will recommend treatments.
- A kind of Amazon Echo for kids, from toymaker Mattel, that can read your kid bedtime stories.
That's 10 new apps for your smartphone right there, for objects you never imagined could -- or indeed should -- be connected to the internet.
These things are supposed to improve how you brush your hair and shop for groceries. But aren’t these solemn chores what helps keep us human? Besides: will your cat’s welcome be as warm after it realizes a robot -- not you -- feeds it three times a day? Will you miss your child's call in the middle of the night when she opts for a plastic gadget to read her a fairy tale?
This is how capitalism works, of course. People will offer things for sale in the hope other people will buy them, and if there's no market, these objects will just disappear. On the other hand, as major companies adopt some of these offerings, they will soon become mainstream just because they will be pushed on consumers with the help of billion-dollar marketing budgets. Then, expect botnets of smart fridges and hacked smart showers that scald you just for fun. One of the devices presented at CES this year is a special router that monitors the security of every connected device in the home, which seems wise after a hack brought the internet to a standstill for millions in October.
It is only a matter of time before these gadgets must also defend against waves of "targeted" ads based on your ketchup consumption and the little one’s zeal for Maurice Sendak.
That will be a dystopian world. I, for one, will steer clear of all these "smart" objects while "dumb" ones are still sold. An internet-connected device that solves a real problem is the rarest of rarities at this point.
But I won't deny that it's also heartwarming that people are designing some of these things, and adventurous consumers are trying them out. That's mostly because of the voice features, based in many cases on Amazon's Alexa. Amazon has put the voice assistant in the cloud, allowing manufacturers to keep devices simple and cheap: all they need to do is record voice commands, send them off, and receive responses. The more Alexa is used in the weirdest contexts, the better it recognizes complex or badly formulated commands and the more it learns of the endless diversity of human life. It's good for the technology -- which has many legitimate uses, from making driving safer to increasing the accessibility of services to disabled people -- that some of us are willing to have regular conversations about with their fridge.
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