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.
In our homes, devices like Google Nest identify friends or strangers at the door, while Philips Hue lights can be programmed to shift their color based on our circadian clocks. When we plan meals for the week, Samsung’s Family Hub refrigerator photographs what’s left in the fridge and makes suggestions based on our diets. If there are unusual sounds in our homes (like the cat lazily knocking a drinking glass to the floor), Amazon’s Alexa alerts us. In 2020, Samsung also teased a forthcoming robot companion named Ballie, that can roll around like BB-8 from “Star Wars” and help operate our smart home devices.
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.
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.
“All it would take is for an intuitive AI system to make a bad decision that impacts badly on you or someone else. And then there would be a very quick kind of cultural conversation of who’s to blame for the decisions that technology is making for them,” Housley said, pointing to the debate that surrounded a fatal self-driving Uber accident back in 2018.
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’
Jamie Cobb, director of industrial design group Map Project Office in London, believes the next five to 10 years will see an explosion in ambient technology, thanks to groundwork laid over the last decade. His team is interested in the new behaviors that this type of technology will enable and how we will live harmoniously with it, as Map outlined in a recent e-paper, “The Future of Ambient Technology.”
“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.
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2020, Panasonic unveiled a new concept based on activity-sensing technology that is designed to predict your behavior around the home, including biometric sensors that adjust room temperature based on your body heat. Chinese home appliance brand Haier, meanwhile, showcased a concept for a flexible and accessible kitchen that can adjust the height of appliances, among other features, by using voice and facial recognition to determine who is using it.
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.”
The technology may help run a more sustainable home. WGSN’s “The Future Home of 2030” report looked at new technology that could do just that, including VibroSense, an AI-powered device developed by researchers at Cornell University. Tracking vibrations in walls, ceilings and floors, VibroSense monitors and adjusts 17 different types of appliances in the home, turning off dripping faucets and alerting residents to the wet clothes left unattended in the washing machine.
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.
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.”
While we are now accustomed to hyper-targeted product advertising, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw Facebook user data harvested and exploited for political advertising, portends a future where it may become much easier to use people’s personal preferences for much more than purchasing decisions.
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.
But Housley says technology meant to connect people also has the potential to exacerbate inequalities. She points out racial profiling that has taken place on some neighborhood social networking apps like Nextdoor as foreshadowing to what may follow. The app has been criticized for allowing users to report people they see in their neighborhood as “suspicious” based only on their race. The company has tried to address the issue with several features, including a new “anti-racism notification” that identifies offensive phrases and asks users to reconsider before they post.
“(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.”