SINCE I joined INQ, nearly seven years ago (can that be right?), one of my favourite areas has been the emergence of the "smart home", a realm previously the reserve of people with surnames like "Beckham" or "Blofeld".
I've been doing a bit of an inventory of my smart home, which started with a couple of Z Wave sockets in 2014 and realised something.
I, like a great many people, have been sucked into a complete bastardisation of what a smart home is. Because big tech, as big tech so often does, seems to have hijacked it, improved it in a lot of ways, whilst completely borking it in others.
Specifically? Voice control. We've been told for a long time that voice was going to be the big gamechanger in tech. So when Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant became nigh on essential household items, it made sense that they would also become the focal point of the smart home.
That's great, of course. Hundreds of brands could interact with each other using the smart voice assistant as a hub. Nobody is arguing with that part. A few years ago, my biggest moan was that smart home products were too siloed. Now, with a few notable exceptions, brands are opening up to working together rather than try and convince you to go all-in on their stuff.
But is a smart home run by a voice assistant really all that smart? No. It does what you tell it to do. Like a switch, but with your mouth. It's changed how we interact with the home, but it hasn't actually improved it.
For a purist like me, a smart home has to do more. We're not talking about some weird Demon Seed-style artificial intelligence to lock you in the bathroom and force you to watch through the keyboard as it molests your wife. But what we are talking is sensors. Sensors that mean that your home does what it needs to without a lecture from you, thank you very much.
You see, for a home to be "smart" it shouldn't reactively be following instructions, it should be proactively following algorithms and operating things automatically. The excitement of smart homing is the automation, something that Alexa and Google Assistant just haven't got close to right yet.
A real smart home can tell if a room is occupied. A real smart home can tell if its too hot or too cold, but doesn't just keep that information within the heating system, it tells the rest of the house so it can look for things that could be causing it, you know, like a fire or something. A real smart home could not only tell you if someone was at the door but whether or not it needed to pause playback on the TV.
The fact that neither Amazon or Alexa has promoted smart homing and home automation as the same thing is very telling. If it was selling a product that you didn't have to interact with after it was set up, you'd use their assistant a lot less, you wouldn't form any habit of using it every day and it would soon be forgotten - another anonymous obelisk in the corner near the router.
Then, of course, the ultimate upshot to that is that they'd have a lot less of your data - your habits, your purchases, your preferences and of course your voiceprint to use.
We've seen Amazon Echo and Google Nest devices permeate into a great many Western homes now. But let's be honest - they're devices that seem to be helpful for home control, but they're not - they're devices that have steered home control in a direction that suits them, and stopped people from realising the full potential of those gadgets.
I'm not saying that voice control, and even voice assistants, specifically, shouldn't be part of a smart home set up, you'll always need to do some stuff manually, but we should be thinking bigger. Telling ‘the house' you're going out and asking when the next bus will be is one thing. Letting the house ‘sense' you're out, arming the cameras, turning down the heating and preparing a lovely cup of tea for your return - it's when you can do that, using a suite of the best products of their ilk, regardless of brand, that we'll see smart homes live up to the life-changing potential they have for good.
Here's hoping now we're all hooked on Voice Assistants, Big Tech is ready to let us experience a truly smart home.
TL;DR - let's get better support for sensors and an IF/OR/AND/THAT engine up and running before we forget just how smart our homes can really be. μ
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