Science fiction scenarios have long prophesied a gee-whiz Home of the Future complete with automated appliances, chore-performing robots, and jetpacks. In recent years, technologists and corporate officials have expanded that idea with visions of utility systems, buildings, and even entire cities where sensors, ubiquitous smartphones, and real-time data analytics allow traffic to flow more smoothly, electricity and water systems to adjust efficiently to customer needs, and buildings or bridges that tell their overseers when they are in need of repair.
Cisco predicts that there will be 25 billion connected devices in 2015 and 50 billion by 2020, each generating data and insights that might prove helpful to those who monitor and collect such things. This profusion of connectivity and data should facilitate a new understanding of how living environments can be improved.
To some degree, that future already exists or is being plotted now. Here are some of the things that are occurring now or are being planned for implementation in the foreseeable future:
- In 2008, IBM declared that it was going to make a big push into the “industrial Internet” in an initiative called “Smarter Planet.” There are now more than 2,000 projects in the company’s initiative. The New York Times reported: “In Dubuque, Iowa, for example, IBM has embarked on a long-term program with the local government to use sensors, software, and Internet computing to improve the city’s use of water, electricity, and transportation. In a pilot project in 2011, digital water meters were installed in 151 homes, and software monitored water use and patterns, informing residents about ways to consume less and alerting them to likely leaks. In Rio de Janeiro, IBM is employing ground and airborne sensors, along with artificial intelligence software, for neighborhood-level disaster preparedness. The system … aims to predict heavy rains and mudslides up to 48 hours in advance and conduct evacuations before they occur.”
- Google and other companies have created driverless cars that have successfully navigated the streets of San Francisco and interstate highways.
- One of the newest “smart appliances” will enter the market this month. It is a rice cooker made by Panasonic and sold in Japan that downloads an Android app that then allows the cooker itself to search for recipes. The app is capable of sending emails to the owner about the ingredients that are needed for certain recipes.
- Researchers at General Electric are working on the prototype of a smart hospital room, equipped with three small cameras, mounted inconspicuously on the ceiling. With software for analysis, the room can monitor movements by doctors and nurses in and out of the room, alerting them if they have forgotten to wash their hands before and after touching a patient—a change that could cut hospital-acquired infections. Computer vision software is being designed to analyze patients’ facial expressions for signs of severe pain, the onset of delirium or other hints of distress, and send an electronic alert to a nearby nurse.
- Sparked, a Dutch startup firm, implants sensors in the ears of cattle to monitor their health and whereabouts. Sensors that give readouts about human activity are being embedded in shoes, medicine such as asthma inhalers, and medical exploratory surgery devices.
- Some cities are extending smart system efforts to city services. IBM is enabling citizens' smartphones with apps that allow users to alert cities to the existence of potholes, graffiti, and water issues by taking photos and sending them to city management, where they can be dealt with.
Where will we be in 2020?
Will the connected household be more efficient at resource management? Or will the ideal Home of the Future remain elusive? A highly engaged, diverse set of respondents were asked by Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project to answer this question in an online, opt-in survey. It included 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics.
Survey participants’ opinions about the potential of smart systems were nearly evenly divided.
Some 51% agreed with the statement:
By 2020, the connected household has become a model of efficiency, as people are able to manage consumption of resources (electricity, water, food, even bandwidth) in ways that place less of a burden on the environment while saving households money. Thanks to what is known as “smart systems,” the Home of the Future that has often been foretold is coming closer and closer to becoming a reality.
Some 46% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited:
By 2020, most initiatives to embed IP-enabled devices in the home have failed due to difficulties in gaining consumer trust and because of the complexities in using new services. As a result, the home of 2020 looks about the same as the home of 2011 in terms of resource consumption and management. Once again, the Home of the Future does not come to resemble the future projected in the recent past .
Respondents were asked to select the one statement of the two scenarios above with which they mostly agreed. The design of the tension pairs forced survey participants to consider opposite outcomes and then choose one of them in order to encourage a deeply considered written elaboration about the potential future. While 51% said smart systems will make the Home of the Future come to life for those fortunate enough to live in Internet-connected households, nearly as many—46%—quite firmly and with strong arguments voiced the opposing view.
Most of the comments shared by survey participants were assertions that the Home of the Future will continue to be mostly a marketing mirage. The written responses were mostly negative and did not mirror the evenly split verdict when respondents made their scenario selection. Because the written elaborations are the meat of this research report and the vast majority of them poked holes in the ideal of smart systems being well-implemented by individuals in most connected homes by 2020, this report reflects the naysayers’ sense that there are difficult obstacles that are not likely to be overcome over the next few years.
Here is a sampling of their predictions and arguments:
There’s movement toward such systems, but they are complicated and the advent of truly smart homes may not occur anytime soon. Richard Titus, a venture capitalist at his own fund, Octavian Ventures, observed that people will have to deal with the quirkiness of this connectivity: “Our houses will be IP-connected. This is a fact. There will be some amazing products built on top of this platform, and I’m excited to see what they are. However, I suspect the system will still screw up and bring me soymilk when I really wanted goat’s milk. And it will never ever, ever be able to properly order me a dozen ripe avocados, though I’ll try again each time, as hope springs eternal.”
Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Communications and Society program at the Aspen Institute, said, “Smart homes are on their way, but this development is being delayed. Not so much by lack of trust as by lack of alignment of the key players—utilities, ISPs, manufacturers.” Donald G. Barnes, visiting professor at Guangxi University in China; former director of the Science Advisory Board at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wrote, “Barriers include the following: economic weakness, economic uncertainties, building codes, lack of standardization, lack of oversight/regulation (which actually leads to an atmosphere of business confidence), lack of tested, mature technologies, and resistance from entrenched technologies.”
The development of smart systems will be a boon to health care, providing benefits especially for the disabled and the elderly. “In the next decade there will be huge demand for home medical alert systems, and the market will respond to that need. Health will be a bigger driver than environmental issues,” said Hal Varian, chief economist at Google.
When smart systems are adopted, an essential driver will be the difference they will make in energy costs and environmental sustainability. “Homes will get more efficient because it will cost more and more to waste energy. The devices will become simpler because no one likes being outsmarted by their thermostat,” said David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
People desire more simplicity, not complexity. Our grandmothers have to be able to understand these systems and there is not enough evidence yet about whether many of the systems will be easy enough to use. Mike Leibhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, said, “People have simply too much to do already to focus scarce attention on properly managing their resource consumption in fine detail. Also, people seem to resist the idea as invasive of smart grid top-down monitoring and control of resource consumption. Conservation technologies are promising, but behavior changes will be very slow.”
The bad economy is going to delay progress; current smart systems are not really affordable and people are focused on other things when it comes to change. Kevin Novak, a vice president with the American Institute of Architects and co-chair of the eGov Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium, noted, “The technology and available systems will not be the impediment to adoption. The financial costs will be.”
A key driver will be incentives or mandates; some say these will not happen. “Whether or not they come by 2020 will depend on whether energy companies are mandated or incentivized to adopt them or if consumers demand them. More education is needed about what is possible,” said Stephen Murphy, senior vice president for business development and digital strategy at IQ Solutions.
The home isn’t the real locus of change. It’s the smartphone with its apps. “The Home of the Future will be a mobile home. That is, everything that people need to be connected and efficiently manage utilities, shopping, communications, and everyday life matters will be accessible anywhere they are via a mobile device and their mobile or Wi-Fi provider. This is unlikely to be ubiquitous by 2020, and the wired-up smart homes envisaged a decade ago are only practicable for new builds. In time, the only thing a household will need is broadband Wi-Fi point of connectivity,” said Jane Vincent, visiting faculty fellow at the University of Surrey Digital World Research Centre.
There are concerns over centralized control of systems trumping individual will while filling the coffers of service providers. “We are already witnessing rejection of many smart-grid initiatives. It is perceived as an intrusion in people’s lives, as a way to shift the balance of power from the individual to the utilities,” wrote Christian Huitema, distinguished engineer at Microsoft Corporation. Brian Harvey, a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley predicted, “Energy will be conserved, but at a huge privacy cost. And sooner or later the smart meters will start imposing rationing.” And Steven Swimmer, a consultant who previously worked in a digital leadership role for a major broadcast TV network, said there’s a power struggle now gearing up. “The bigger question will be how is the hub controlled?” he said. “Will it be via a home-based computer, a set-top media box, a black box, or a purely cloud-based system? Expect large battles for companies to try to own this space by offering free or subsidized devices and/or apps. Will it be your phone company, your cable/satellite company, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, or some other big player?”
Nobody really wants a smart home—they like their homes to be dumb; the smart home of tomorrow is just a wish upon a star. Tracy Rolling, product user-experience evangelist for Nokia, found the ideal rather laughable. “Bwahahahahah,” she wrote. “Smart homes. Yeah. No. Nobody really wants a smart home. Also, proprietary technology and a lack of organized protocols and formats means that this is not going to take off for a very, very long time. My iPhone won’t want to talk to my GE smart toaster and my Bosch smart refrigerator won’t connect to my generic smart coffee maker. People don’t seem to want this stuff very much. They like for their homes to be dumb. How many people do you know who have bought one of those alarm-clock coffee pots, loved them for a month, and then stopped using the alarm-clock feature all together? Smart homes are like that on a grand scale.”
Jerry Michalski, president of Sociate and consultant for the Institute for the Future, shared a comprehensive view of flaws he sees, writing, “A few years back, BMW and Mercedes Benz had to turn off some of the onboard electronics on their high-end cars because complexity gremlins were making things break. Those are smart German companies that one assumes have a lot of control over their components and their software. Diabetic Jay Radcliffe recently hacked into his own wirelessly enabled insulin pump, changing his dosage. The Internet of Things and the subsequent world of smart systems, from smart cars and smart highways to smarter cities and smart homes is mostly overblown, and, in fact, poses a significant risk of creating overwhelming complexity, which could take down the Internet we now have. It also opens the door to hacking scenarios we seem to not want to contemplate. Every security technology becomes obsolete. If we connect all these new things and expose them to external control, you can bet some of the forces controlling them won’t be the designers or owners. As these connected devices age, they’ll just become more vulnerable. Imagine also the court cases of people hit by autonomous vehicles, for example. I see our ‘smarter world’ much as I see genetically modified organisms right now: very powerful technologies that could do a lot of good but are being implemented poorly.”
Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, British Columbia, proposed that we must program or be programmed. “While I expect that connected households will become the norm (at least for middle-to-high income households), we need to be wary of putting too much faith in technology as our environmental saviour—at least in this very literal version, which relies on things like shifting energy consumption to off-peak hours,” she warned. “What’s much more promising is the way that technology can shift our underlying demands so that we become a less consumption-intensive society: a world in which we’d rather spend the day making a movie for YouTube than paying to watch one in a cinema, in which we’d rather write our own blog post than kill a bunch of trees to read a newspaper, in which we’d rather look online for instructions on how to build a piece of furniture than to go out and buy something pre-fab from IKEA. If we’re willing to treat technology as a mechanism for changing our ways, rather than as a magic wand that will let us sustain them, we might have a shot.”
An anonymous respondent proposed an alternative, third scenario that echoes many of the statements made by other survey participants: “By 2020, the connected household has become a model of efficiency, as people are able to manage consumption of resources (electricity, water, food, even bandwidth) in ways that place less of a burden on the environment while saving households money. Thanks to what is known as smart systems, the Home of the Future that has often been foretold is coming closer and closer to becoming a reality. By 2020, most initiatives to embed IP-enabled devices in the home have failed due to difficulties in gaining consumer trust and because of the complexities in using new services. As a result, the home of 2020 looks about the same as the home of 2011 in terms of resource consumption and management. Once again, the Home of the Future does not come to resemble the future projected in the recent past.”
Another anonymous respondent who works with smart systems reported, “I’ve worked in automated metering infrastructure for three years and understand these systems from circuit boards to consumers. Very few of the promised benefits have materialized after five years of deployment, especially with energy savings. The main cost savings were actually manpower reductions due to automated meter readings, and the consumer saw none of that passed on. In 2011, the smart grid vendor I work with has chronic problems and rarely performs as expected. We spend days correcting systems and utility bills. Quality control is not robust, and foreign outsourcing of circuit boards and software has driven costs very high due to chronic quality issues. Consumers have little real understanding of these systems and how system flaws and meter misconfigurations affect their bills. Our home energy project was not enthusiastically embraced, and real communication issues persist. Consumers receive only contingent information about the effects of added radiofrequency energy [electromagnetic radiation] in their homes. They also are resistant to intrusive monitoring and control of their home equipment, and added power consumption for the monitoring equipment to reduce consumption. Utility workers are basically honest and committed people, but the bottom line of the corporation will always be to increase consumption. Those with poor Internet resources—tribes, rural, poor—will be completely shut out. Those with smart-grid systems enabled in their homes will become even less aware of energy delivery systems in the economy.”