For decades, the smart home has been a mainstay in pop culture, from Disney’s 1999 flick “Smart House,” in which an artificially intelligent home takes on the personality of a domineering mother, to the retro high-tech home of “The Jetsons.” The 1960s cartoon offered a view of domestic life a century later, from a grooming room that combs your hair and brushes your teeth, to the ever-attentive and overworked Rosie, the robot maid.
Some of the Jetsons’ housewares and furnishings, such as the bed that ejected the occupant like a piece of toast, are still a pipe dream. But 60 years later, we’ve got their smart watches and (comparatively primitive) digital assistants.
We may not have the living room of “The Jetsons” yet, but over the past decade, integrated smart devices have become a mainstay in our homes. Credit: leanza abucayan/cnn
For the most part, we still explicitly direct our devices on how best to serve us, but that’s about to change, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Joseph A. Paradiso, who directs the MIT Media Lab’s Responsive Environments group.
Just over two decades after the late venture capitalist Eli Zelkha and his team at Palo Alto Ventures introduced the concept of “ambient intelligence,” laying out a future in which electronics were ubiquitous, interconnected and responsive parts of our homes, we’re on the cusp of making their vision a reality. The exploding field of ambient technology promises innovative, intuitive electronics that fade into the background hum of our lives.
“Soon, you’re going to have systems that will be proactive,” Paradiso said in a video interview. Our devices are “going to see and hear as we do, and they’re going to be suggesting and prompting.”
In 2018, Amazon waded into these waters with Alexa’s Hunches feature, which can perform small tasks, like turning off smart lights for you when you go to bed, without your direction. Until this January, users had to give permission for Alexa to act on her decisions. But now, once you’ve opted in, Alexa can decide what to do around your home based on your habits.
“It’s a big change in your relationship with Alexa, if it starts to decide things for you,” Sarah Housley, head of consumer technology at trend forecasting company WGSN, explained in a video interview.
Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa can now make decisions for users based on their habits, thanks to an updated “Hunches” feature.
As technology progresses, artificial intelligence (AI), the linchpin of ambient technology, will likely augment more areas of our lives. Any error, however, may lead to backlash, Housley warned.
And that conversation is bound to come soon: By 2030, WGSN has predicted that we will be using 50 billion connected devices around the world, creating smart networks in and outside of the home.
‘The technology is now in line with the futurologists’
“The technology is now in line with the futurologists,” Cobb said. A decade ago, he added, “you’d never (have) imagined that someone could order food or turn the lights on just by talking to an object, and that’s quickly become part of a very familiar landscape.”
Some of the biggest advancements have been made in computing power, sensor size and speech and natural language recognition, according to Paradiso. But our devices are poised to respond to far more than voice commands. Ambient technology will be sensitive to our movement, gaze, posture, body language, heat biometrics, and the nuances in our tone of voice, Cobb said.
Samsung’s smart refrigerators can help people plan their meals based on their dietary needs, as well as what’s left in their fridge. Other kitchen concepts imagine an even more personalized and automated experience. Credit: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images
Ambient technology may help us rely less on screens, as we need them less to direct our devices. Our digital assistants can already access many of our apps for us without the need to swipe open our phones, and those types of interactions are bound to become more comprehensive.
“It’s amazing how much screens have taken over my young children’s lives,” Cobb said. “That’s a very lean-forward, immersive experience. But when we talk about ambient, it gives us an opportunity to create more lean-back experiences.”
Though it does take energy to run smart devices, manufacturers have touted overall savings costs. According to Google, its Nest thermostat saves US customers up to 12% on heating and 15% on cooling bills.
Devices like the Nest Learning Thermostat aim to run homes in a more sustainable way. Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Archive Photos/Getty Images
The WGSN report details how our living spaces will be increasingly digitized and able to change up visually or aurally according to our moods, using augmented reality (AR) and deep learning, which Housley suggests could lead to a creative boom when it comes to home decor. IKEA has provided a glimpse into what our homes might soon be capable of through its project “Everyday Experiments” with Danish design lab SPACE10, proposing blinds that adjust themselves according to the sun, or an AR and spatial audio app that turns the objects in your home into a musical symphony by scanning and assigning each of them a sound, which can be changed by rearranging objects, among other concepts.
“The idea that a designer can design a mood, or design an ambience is a fantastic thing,” Housley said. “So thinking about how all of the senses come together is going to be really inspiring for designers — how do they pair lighting with color and with sound and with pattern and tactility?”
“I think that digital decor could become a sustainable way to update your space, if you have furnishings that you can change digitally by projecting color or light onto them,” she added.
And, though it may have been too early for smart glasses when Google Glass was introduced back in 2013, a number of AR glasses on the horizon — reportedly including Apple and Facebook — will mean that soon enough, anything in or outside of the home may become interactive and responsive.
Privacy in a world of intimate technology
But all of this innovation could come at a cost: our privacy. And in the current landscape, it’s a fee consumers may be reticent to pay. “With the big backlash against Big Tech that we’ve seen over the past few years, I think consumers… have a certain level of interest in privacy and ethics now that they didn’t before,” Housley said.
These fears aren’t entirely unfounded. Massive breaches to major websites have compromised the data of hundreds of millions of people in the past few years, and the comprehensive data ambient technology relies on will include far more than our addresses and credit card numbers. The digital assistant that will be able to identify when you”ll be most attentive for a Spanish lesson — a function Paradiso said is being heavily researched — will have the type of information that could be used to manipulate you.
“We can start looking at your internal state: Are you focused? Is this the best time to give you this information now?” Paradiso said. “If you have intimate knowledge of people, you can start knowing exactly how to make an intervention to sway them.”
A decade ago, “You’d never (have) imagined that someone could order food or turn the lights on just by talking to an object, and that’s quickly become part of a very familiar landscape,” Cobb said. Physical robot assistants, like Samsung’s Ballie, are likely on the horizon. Credit: Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Housley also notes smart home features could soon extend beyond just your home. Amazon Sidewalk, for instance, will be rolling out soon, offering the ability to create smart neighborhoods by allowing connected devices to work beyond the range of a single home’s Wi-Fi, including home security systems, broadening their potential reach.
“(The racism is) almost amplified by the technology… And so that will need to be tackled as well for consumers to feel like these systems are equitable and that they’re democratic.”
Identifying these problems will become crucial as more people opt in to relinquishing their tasks to ambient technology. In a world with billions and billions of connected devices that learn us intimately to streamline our lives, it will be harder to opt out.
“I think it will become more and more of a luxury to be unconnected,” Housley said.
But Paradiso takes a more optimistic tone, referring to sci-fi writers who have opined about the collective intelligence humans will be capable of when more fully linked.
“(Ambient technology) is going to really unite us with machine intelligence and each other, ideally, in a way, that’s great,” he said. “I like to take the long view, and something like that would be wonderful.”