The Pros and Cons of Technology's March into our Homes

technology in homes

Active and passive technology is now being woven into the very fabric of our homes, bringing with it many advantages.

This progress is taking us well beyond robot vacuum cleaners and thermostats we can talk with, and it may be happening faster than we realize. Given that today is Halloween, I felt it would be an appropriate time to look at not only the benefits, but also some of the slightly scarier implications of all this.

I'm no Luddite, so I'm not going to rant about the rise of the evil machines, but I am going to try to inform you about some of the changes that are taking place, how they will hopefully improve our lives, and what the possible downsides may be. I'm not going to try and predict what our homes will look like in 100 years, but I will make some informed observations about the coming decade.

Smaller Homes

Once self driving cars become more like an automated Uber service than a necessary possession, the need for garages will decline possibly resulting in smaller homes. Forbes reasoned in this essay that one of the main driving forces behind our need to live with our possessions is the inefficiency of retrieving them from elsewhere when needed - this problem is solved once physical items can retrieve themselves. This effect may not only be limited to cars - imagine appliances or tools that deliver themselves to your home when you need them, this could cut down on the required storage space from them as well.

Pros

  • Reduced housing costs.
  • Reduced environmental impact of home construction.

Cons

  • We may decide not to reduce home floor space and use the space saved for other recreational purposes instead.
  • A reduction in privacy due to intelligent machines being networked and reporting their location and usage to the companies that provide them.

Home Construction

Both materials science and fabrication techniques are moving ahead in leaps and bounds. Last year we brought you the story of how the University of Southern California is developing a large scale macro printer which has the capability of building a 2,500 sq ft house in under 24 hours. The advances in materials science are too many to name them all here, however one category of such materials are self cleaning surfaces and coatings. These aren't science fiction, Pilkington introduced the first commercial self cleaning glass back in 2001, and self cleaning paints are now ready for widespread use - this video is a great demonstration:

Pros

  • Huge time savings - particularly when it comes to cleaning the exterior of your house.

Cons

Fixtures, Fittings, and Furniture

You've probably already heard about 3D printing so I won't go into too much detail here - you can read this excellent overview if you're unfamiliar with the topic. In a nutshell, you can already use a 3D printer to make many household items from kitchenware to d├ęcor - you just download a design, or create your own, and print it out. What you may not yet be familiar with is 4D Printing. The 'fourth dimension' in this process is time - the time that passes while the 3D multi-material printed object assembles itself or performs ongoing work such as pipes that actively dilate and contract to pump water. This technology is still very much in it's infancy, but it promises to deliver self assembling objects ranging from furniture to wiring as well as double bed mattresses that have the same degree of firmness for you and your partner regardless of differences in your weight and size. This TED Talk by Skylar Tibbits from MIT will give you an idea of how this is working in the lab:

Pros

  • Never be confused by flat pack furniture instructions again - you also won't get to the end of the assembly work only to find you have a few small pieces left over.
  • You will be able to DIY complex jobs which currently require professionals - no need to call a plumber or electrician.

Cons

  • Having programming logic embedded in active materials could result in 'software bugs' like the type computers often have, with consequences ranging from inconvenience when your pipes start pumping water the wrong way, to life threatening situations such as structural failure of your home.
  • These things may not happen purely by accident, the smarter and more active your home and materials, the higher the risk of malicious hacking by criminals who may do more than simply steal your bank account details.

Everything is Moving Closer to Home

Disintermediation is the term economists use to talk about removing the 'middle men' between producers and consumers - think of how services like Netflix have helped to make video rental stores a concept that's rapidly fading into history. In addition some technologies are simply replacing some of the people who provide home services such as cleaning pools, mowing lawns, and house cleaning. Here are just a few examples:

Online market places for buying and selling homes - not only do they seek to replace traditional estate agents but they also charge significantly less. Service providers like House Network have cost savings calculators so you know how much you're not paying the agent. In addition they bring distant markets closer - when you list a house with an online service it can be seen not just by people visiting your area, but also by people who are intending to move there from anywhere in the world.

Customer service robots - these may come in virtual form helping you design your remodel online - very basic ones are already available from companies such as Lowes, but also in physical form like OSHbot who will soon be helping hardware store customers.

Home care robots - these will be able to help the disabled and elderly live independently at home. Many people, both young and old, are forced to live in nursing homes due to not being able to afford a home care nurse or private medical assistant. As the technology improves and prices come down, these robots will be able to perform all manner of tasks including cooking and cleaning, physical assistance and alerting emergency services if need be. This video provides a good example:

Here's a humorous take on where technology is currently lacking, by a company that manufactures real robot lawn mowers:

Pros

  • Reduced costs for both businesses and consumers.
  • Wider variety of choices - no physical store could hold as many books, TV shows or movies as their online counterparts.

Cons

  • Workers will be displaced at faster rates than we've seen before throughout history. Although in the long run the 'invisible hand of the market' will create new jobs to replace old ones - think of how few stonemasons there are today compared to bricklayers - this is cold comfort when you're on the receiving end. I've experienced this personally as my old work of selling online advertising has largely been replaced by automated systems provided by companies like Bing and Google. We need to think about this transition so that we get to reap the rewards with minimal social upheaval which could damage the economy and slow growth as a result.

Smart Homes & Gadgets

This category of home technology is epitomized by the Internet of Things. This is basically where not only people, but also devices are using the internet to communicate. This allows both devices with their own smarts, as well as those with little built in intelligence of their own, to harness the processing and algorithmic power of systems in the cloud. For example you might program your fridge to order deliveries online when you're running low on certain foods, or your smart thermostat might turn on the heating when you're coming home from work either because you asked it to via an app, or because it tracks your daily activities or your current location and knows when you're due to arrive home.

An example of bringing all this together is the EmoSPARK which is billed as "the first artificial intelligence console committed to your happiness" - they make the none-to-subtle claim that they will completely change the face of technological development as we know it:

Pros

  • This could potentially lead to amazing technology that understands your needs and wants better than you consciously do yourself. If you're forgetful like me then don't worry, your smart home has paid your electric bill before it became overdue and it'll send you a message to let you know it's taken care of things.
  • Levels of convenience that even the Jetsons didn't have - no need to rush home due to that unexpected storm because your house will close the windows and batten down the hatches for you.

Cons

  • Reduced levels of privacy again - for all this to work most effectively, your home and gadgets will need to share information with the companies that provide the processing power, or who simply want to prevent their algorithms from being stolen by competitors, just as the Nest thermostat and Google Now already do.
  • As our devices become more familiar, we may develop similar relationships with them as we do with our pets, or even relate to them the way we do with people, and this could lead to all sorts of social and ethical complications - just think of the movie 'Her'.

The Take Home Message

Which ever way the future goes, we the people need to have this conversation now, otherwise no amount of common sense may be enough to save the rights of man from our technological overlords.

I was born in a small town at the bottom of New Zealand and the first home my parents bought when we moved out of my grandparents' house, was a small cottage in the countryside. We did have electricity, but our water was heated by the stove we cooked on - it was powered by coal. The nearest thing we had to a computer was my parents' pocket calculator (if your pockets were 5 inches wide) and the most advanced technology we had was a telephone which was on a party line shared with several other homes in the area and you had to talk to a human operator to place a call.

Less than 5 decades later I'm living in a home where the water is heated by a solar system, I'm typing this post on a 'super computer', my calculators are free apps, and I have multiple phone numbers but none of them use a traditional land-line. If Google employees like Ray Kurzweil are correct, then in less than 2 decades from now their company may have machines at least as intelligent as humans, and those machines will be connected to multiple devices in our homes, our means of transportation, and may even be embedded in our bodies rather than worn on our wrists.

Technology may make life longer and more enjoyable than we can imagine right now, or we may be wiped out by our creations - not neccessarily in a Terminator like take-over, it may simply happen as an incidental byproduct of technology's growth.

Don't you also think it's about time we started talking about the pros and cons of the technology we're bringing into our homes and every aspect of our lives? Share your thoughts in this Twitter conversation.