Just how artificially intelligent should our homes be?

  • Lifestyle
  • Thursday, 03 Jul 2014

Is the "conscious home" – a thinking, planning, smart house – really the kind of roof we want over our heads?

Your cooker might have a clever digital timer, and your fridge its own nifty little screen, but when the man who invented the iPod and the iPhone came to build himself a house, nothing in the appliance shop was smart enough.

“It was all just so dumb,” says Tony Fadell. “I’d spent my life working on ephemeral technology products, so when I came to build something permanent, I was shocked. It seemed like nothing had moved on in the sphere of the home for the last 50 years.”

It was 2005, and Fadell was leading the development of the iPhone at Apple, while planning a dream holiday house for his young family in Lake Tahoe, California. “I knew this device was going to become the centrepiece of our lives, and change the way we work and move around, so it became the lens through which I was looking at my home. What would a house look like if your smartphone became the primary way to control it?”

Almost 10 years later, Fadell, 48, presides over a company that is pioneering what he calls the “conscious home”, turning something that sounds straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis into a very real proposition. His firm, Nest Labs, was acquired by Google earlier this year for US$3.2bil (RM10.3bil), and last week, he announced partnerships with a further host of global corporations, from Mercedes to Whirlpool.

Nest’s new Developer Programme will see its intelligent, data-driven technology reach further into every aspect of our lives, from cars and washing machines, to lighting and fridges – with appliances that are not only hooked up to the Internet, but that can talk to each other. And it all began with a humble heating dial.

While designing his house, Fadell scoured every room to determine which part of the home had seen the least amount of innovation. And he hit upon the thermostat. “It wasn’t about the panel on the wall, but about what it controls. In the United States, heating and cooling accounts for half of all home energy bills, and in Britain, it’s two thirds,” he explains.

At the time, the most advanced thermostat cost several hundred dollars and came with a colour touchscreen display that included a digital calendar and photo album. “The technology wasn’t focused on what actually matters, i.e. helping you to reduce your energy consumption and your bills,” says Fadell. “It just layered on all this useless, whizzy stuff. And it was really ugly.”

Leaving Apple in 2010, he spent time travelling in Europe, where he visited a number of so-called smart homes that were “even dumber” than their US counterparts, before returning to America to establish Nest, and launch the Learning Thermostat in October 2011.

An inky black circle that twinkles to life when you touch it, with the polished good looks of something straight from the Apple stable, the responsive thermostat was the first step in Fadell’s vision for the conscious home, monitoring and learning from the user’s behavioural patterns to second-guess their needs and desires. It turns down the heat when you’re away, and knows when you like it warmer. It records your activity for the last 10 days and sends you an energy report every month. It even provides incentives, awarding “green leaf” brownie points when reduced energy targets are achieved.

“It’s a bit like a diet coach,” says Fadell, who speaks with the motivational TED-talk sales patter of every Apple exec. “We help you to do things you want to do. We know what you’ve done in your home and can give you suggestions: ‘Hey, here’s a better way to save,’ or ‘You’re doing really well today’, or, ‘Compared to your neighbours, you maybe wanna improve’.”

He says neighbours, because Nest’s users are part of a bigger network – or “community” – who are able to track their energy usage in line with the local and regional average, and time their use according to peaks and troughs in the national grid. “You might forget a diet after a couple of months,” he says, “but we do it for you. We allow you to participate as a community to solve some of the world’s bigger problems.”

It might sound like a utopian dream for eco-tech enthusiasts, confined to the manicured streets of California’s Palo Alto, home to Nest’s HQ – if it wasn’t for the fact that the company now sells 50,000 such devices a month, which have together saved over 2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity to date, enough to power the entire US for half an hour.

Nest’s engineers have since turned their humanising hand to the smoke detector, developing a device that substitutes the usual ear-splitting alarm for a gentle voice message, which alerts you to where in your house the incident has been detected.

“Over 70% of fire-related deaths are caused because people had smoke alarms, but they ripped out the batteries to stop that maddening beeping,” says Fadell. By contrast, Nest’s detector simply throbs with a yellow light when you walk past to let you know the power is running low. “If you’ve left a pie in the oven, a voice says: ‘Heads up, there’s smoke in the kitchen!’” And at night, it lights up with a reassuring glow when you walk past it. “It reminds you we’re there,” says Fadell, “watching and helping.”

While product sales continue to soar, the idea of bringing the benevolent, omniscient Nest into your home has taken on somewhat more alarming tones since the company’s acquisition by the biggest data-gathering machine of all time bar the NSA. Fadell describes his relationship with Google “like walking around in a big candy store”, but in our post-Edward Snowden world, others might see it more like embracing Big Brother.

He says the Google deal has given him access to people and resources that have opened up a whole new “supercharged” world of possibilities for the 500-strong firm, freeing him up to focus on product development. But, with Google’s targeted advertising in mind, the tech community’s reaction was rather more cynical: “If your house is burning down, you’ll now get Gmail ads for fire extinguishers,” quipped one commentator. Eyebrows have also been raised about Google’s motivations, extending its data-sucking tentacles beyond our screens and foraging deeper into our homes.

Fadell is adamant that “there is absolutely no co-mingling of personal data with Google”, and that “the terms of service have not changed one word since the acquisition: data is not shared with third parties”. Unless, that is, you decide to opt in. Last week’s raft of new partnerships includes an option to link Nest to your Google account and sync it with Google Now, a kind of personal digital assistant, so your house knows when you’re on your way home and can prepare the temperature accordingly.

Similarly, your car can now tell Nest when you’re coming back, and your clever garage doors can inform it when you’ve left. Nest’s recent acquisition of Dropcam, a home video security system, means that access to live footage of what’s going on in your home is also part of the bargain.

Extending to an area Google has long been interested in, the Nest network now also embraces wearable devices, through a tie-in with Jawbone’s UP wristband, which can alert your house to the fact that you have woken up, and can tell Nest to begin heating or cooling accordingly. Surely the next step will be telling it to put the coffee on, or run you a nice hot bath? Is this the dawn of the much heralded “Internet of things”, in which our homes will begin to resemble a Pixar movie, each appliance competing for our attention with its own cute personality?

“We’re really not about that futuristic idea of the smart home,” says Fadell. “It’s not predicting everything you want, pressing one button and the lights go on, the shades come down and the kettle starts boiling.”

If that’s not Nest’s vision of the future, then it is one that others are taking into their own hands – and will be able to do so more easily now that Nest has opened up its API (application programming interface) to everyone “from global corporations and small companies to startups and tinkerers”.

Chris Dancy, a US software engineer who describes himself as “the most connected human on Earth”, is potentially one such tinkerer. He has developed a smart house for himself in which everything is linked up to what he calls his “inner-net”. Wearing multiple devices at all times, which track everything from his heart-rate to his posture, he channels the data from over 700 sensors into a single online platform that then feeds back into devices in his home.

“The house now knows my behaviours,” he says, looking up from behind his Google Glass headset, a lapel-cam tracking his chest’s-eye-view and assorted rubbery straps protruding from beneath his cuffs. “If I get really stressed out and don’t sleep well, when I wake up the light is a certain colour, the room a particular temperature, and certain music plays. My entire life is preconditioned based on all this information that I collect in real time.”

He says his regime of “data-assisted living”, which he has been pursuing for the past four years, has revolutionised his life, helping him to lose 54kg in 18 months. He can now live in a state of zen-like calm, safe in the knowledge that every aspect of his home has been personally optimised.

It is a form of “life-logging” that techno-sceptic Evgeny Morozov tackles in his book To Save Everything, Click Here (2013). He describes this kind of self-tracking as the epitome of the “modern narcissistic quest for uniqueness and exceptionalism”, questioning why anyone would want to turn their homes into a “temple of surveillance”. Especially now they know Google might be watching.

But that’s no deterrent for those in the race for ever more quantified living, where the bathroom is set to be the next smart frontier. “For the first time, we have data on how we brush our teeth, where we brush our teeth and where we need to improve,” says Renee Blodgett of Kolibree, the world’s first connected electric toothbrush. “Before now, we would only get that feedback from our dentist once a year when we have our annual cleaning. Now, we can get that feedback in real time.”

We might soon be monitoring the other end of things too, with advances in at-home molecular analysis. “You might laugh,” says San Francisco-based designer Yves Behar, who recently unveiled a smart cup that knows exactly what you’re drinking and displays the nutritional content in real time. “But the smart toilet is going to be the next big thing, for analysing your health on a daily basis. It will be like having a doctor in your loo.”

So where might it end?

“It is a very alarming situation,” says Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, curator of this year’s Venice Biennale, in which the Nest thermostat features on a gallery wall, as a cautionary tale as much as a heroic symbol. “Our houses now know so much about us – and very soon, they will begin to betray us.” — Guardian News & Media

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