February 12th, 2015

Macbeth the Usurper

On Smart Homes

I read through this article on smart homes (and the problems in setting one up) and found the experience as bad as I expected.

Here's the trick: a smart home didn't make this guy's life better and that doesn't surprise me one little bit.

The first thing to know about home automation technology is that it is technology, which means that it is always changing. Given that the lifespan of a home is in decades, if not centuries, you can see that change is absolutely certain. That means that your new smart technology is on the happy trail to obsolescence the moment that you install it because, if there's anything that tech likes to do, tech likes to make itself go obsolete.

The second thing about technology is that tech is a tool, and that tool is only as useful as the problems that it solves. What problem are you solving? When you look at a low-tech house, the first thing that you think is, "This house is low-tech." What you fail to realize is that your house is already high-tech, and the technology in your house has stood the rigors of time. That light switch? That's high tech. It is extremely efficient and durable at solving the problem of turning on a light. Any tech that replaces it must equal or beat the problem that the switch already solves. As the main job of a light is to either be on or off exactly when you want it to be on or off, then your smart technology must do that job better, which it doesn't.

To make a smart home, the home must know what you want, when you want it. We currently solve this problem by manually changing the house ourselves, with automation on some of the easier to solve tasks. For instance, a thermostat, even a smart thermostat, keeps the temperature in a certain livable range. As you are unlikely to want a vastly different temperature at a moment's notice, this works out well. Other tasks, like determining how the shades should go, depend on context: what do you want at this moment? To get what you want from automation, you must plug all that in and define what you mean, and as long as you want that exact condition, you'll be happy, but when you want another condition, you'll have to do work.

The promise of a smart home is getting our environment the way that we want, when we want it. The problem is that smart homes can't read our minds, divine our intentions, or adjust for context. When you think about it, those are hard problems to solve because the requirements are so stunningly vague.

We really won't be able to have good home automation until the machines running our homes can interface with humans at a  human level through non-specialized human language, using reliable, stable technology.

"House, raise the blinds. No, raise the blinds in THIS room. Put down the blinds in all the other rooms. No, put the blinds back up in this room. Too much. Put them down some. Put the blinds down some. No, only put the blinds down in this room some."

Maybe it's just better if we get up and flip the light switches ourselves. At least we know what we want.