Anyone who worries that the machines are taking over might not be reassured by the spate of product launches over the last year. There’s Amazon’s Echo: Alexa and the Google Home Hub, August’s lock and Emerson Sensi’s thermostat, Sleep Number’s It bed and Kuna Toucan’s camera, Lifx’s colour-changing bulbs and WeMo’s slow cooker. They’re all “smart”.
They talk to the internet. Even fridges are at it. LG’s latest, launched this month, not only allows you to use touchscreen or an app to see – via panoramic camera – what’s inside your fridge, but will also warn you if products are near their expiry date. It will remind you of birthdays and anniversaries. It has voice recognition. The dream of every technophile will be realised: at last they will even be able to talk to a kitchen appliance.
The connected life – via the internet of things – has long been promised: a world in which all our devices work together to streamline hectic personal, family and working lives, and much more. “But now we are at a tipping point,” says Lionel Guicherd-Callin, European head of product management for Nest, a market leader in connected thermostats and security devices.
“There are more efficient ways to get these kinds of products into the home now, and the products are that much better too. If you look at the time it took tablets to become widespread, uptake for connected devices for the home is very good.”
Indeed, according to one, perhaps overexcited study of the North American market, by software developers Icontrol, over half of those surveyed planned to buy at least one new connected device over the coming 12 months.
Tech market research company Gartner goes further. It predicts that within five years the average home could contain a staggering 500 smart devices. But, while advances the likes of 5G – predicted to offer a 100-fold throughput over 4G – will technically make a connected life possible, further changes in the smart tech industry will be necessary first.
As Guicherd-Callin insists, beyond those tech-savvy kinds, most consumers remain both confused by what the market has to offer, and a little suspicious of the supposed appeal of “a Jetsons house, the idea of which can feel a little gimmicky”.
Rather, he predicts, take up is likely to be slow, steady but incremental – only as each system proves its benefits, and often only as each home appliance becomes ready for replacement; this, for many such appliances, being on closer to a 10 year cycle rather than at the rapid rate with which, for example, we upgrade our cellphones. “It’s very easy for the tech industry to get carried away with the tech,” he notes. “If a device is linked to your smartphone, the first question can’t be whether it’s compatible with Apple or Android, for example.”
To get uptake, such devices have to work straight out of the box. And, as Dr Marwan Fayed, a lecturer in computer science and leading researcher into the allocation of wireless resources at Stirling University, Britain, notes, rarely is that the case with any new piece of tech. As he points out, for all that the digital world may be, in one sense, ethereal, more practically it’s grounded in hardware – machines that need to be well-designed and are expensive to develop.
“Before we put planes in the sky or cars on the road they go through immense testing, because the consequences [of something going wrong with those machines] are serious,” he says. “The need is the same for connected devices. Yet, the industry has yet to agree on so many things to make this possible.”
It’s one reason why, he suggests, a connected life that doesn’t drive users up the wall in frustration – that Icontrol survey also found that almost half of consumers experience stress when their current devices do not work together properly – could be at least two generations (of people) away: one to get on board with the idea, another to embrace the technology.
“I desperately want my life to be more autonomous than it is now – I want to be able to ask my coffee machine, from my bed, to get making my latte. But such a system would only have to go wrong rarely for the amount of energy I’d have to invest to correct that small failure to spoil the whole benefit for me,” he adds. “At the end of the day I might just as easily get up and switch the coffee machine on myself. What most people imagine the connected life to offer is some way off.”
People also seem to be struggling with a sense of just what this connected life will do for them: studies suggest there are hopes that it might bring greater productivity and a better work/leisure balance, an increased ease of access to entertainment anywhere in the house, a better anticipation of one’s needs – relying on that fridge again – and better connectivity with friends and family. They can seem somewhat nebulous aspirations.
Small wonder that those connected devices that so far have most appealed tend to be of the more mundane kind: home security systems, adjustable outdoor lighting, or intelligent thermostats – those that bring a direct and obvious benefit.
As for anything more sci-fi, there are many more major, society-shifting obstacles before that comes to fruition: not just, on a day to day basis, a trust in reliability, but the lack of interoperability, security, privacy, safety, connectivity issues, ownership of the data these devices will generate, and decipherability of that data. How comfortable, for instance, might you be with your life or medical insurer rating its charge to you based on its assessment of the food you eat, as reported to it by that fridge?
And while the constant feedback and data exchange of this new connectivity may, equally, bring society-shifting benefits in the long run – to the saving of resources, to the improved performance of our machines, to just-in-time manufacturing and, more personally, the big issues the likes of health care – there is even, as notes Peter Cochrane, ex-chief technologist for BT and now a consultant to the tech industries, the question of energy to consider.
With a conservatively estimated additional 50 billion devices set to come on-line, will power supplies be able to cope? Remarkably, he points out, the internet today already accounts for 10% of global power usage.
“The fact is that, as beneficial as these advances may prove to be, they are not going to come in a hurry,” he adds.
“We’ve been saying the connected world is just around the corner for 20 years. It’s more a question of it crawling into view. But then it will really change the way we live.”
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