Future Tense

The Smart Home Dilemma

Nnedi’s Okorafor’s “Mother of Invention” illustrates some of the Internet of Things discussions we need to have.

A drone holding a baby.
Illustration by Shyama Golden

A journalist who specializes in the Internet of Things responds to Nnedi Okorafor’s short story “Mother of Invention.

What we call a smart home today isn’t smart. It’s a cluster of gadgets that the user actively programs to respond to basic triggers. The dream smart home is closer to what Obi 3 offers in “Mother of Invention”—what Nest’s creator Tony Fadell called the “intuitive smart home,” one that anticipates the user’s needs and delivers unasked. But the story shows how such a dream can go well and how it could go horribly wrong.

Capabilities like those of Obi 3 may not be here yet, though you can see them coming. However, if we really want to make a home smart we’re going to have to go deeper than a few connected light switches. We have to consider what tools—such as drones, robots, 3-D printers—we need to give a house so it can adequately sustain and protect its inhabitants. There will also have to be an ecosystem of suppliers that can communicate with your home—a way for your digital assistant to order toilet paper when you start to run low, for instance.

In “Mother of Invention,” Anwuli has to order things on behalf of the house and deliver them to the doorstep. This implies the home’s sphere of influence ends at the front door. But there’s infrastructure in place to allow a home to wander at will around the country and set itself up somewhere else. That has to be hell on property tax assessors. Not to mention the reaction of local homeowners associations if your house can build on itself at will to meet the demands of the occupant. Smart homes may not wander the world anytime soon, but there’s already plenty of controversy about how far a smart home can extend. For example, outdoor security cameras are fine for the most part, but if they look into a person’s window, or into a home’s “private area,” in some states it could violate various laws.

Giving the home the tools to act on our behalf is only half of the equation, but it seems well on its way to being solved. For example, at the University of Illinois, researchers are looking at handling drone swarms around people in a manner that isn’t intrusive or frightening as a way to help the elderly age in place. The drones could assist in getting medicines or even help arthritic hands by holding or opening things. At Columbia University, researchers are combining lasers and 3-D printers to cook extruded food that could be purchased in packets. Allowing 3-D printers to cook mixtures of food paves the way to robot-planned and -executed meals. The only human intervention would be the insertions of the various packets in the printer and the eventual eating. So the smart home of the future may have “hands” in the form of drones and could even cook our food. It can even tuck in our children. Every now and again, I hear my daughter sleepily murmur “Goodnight, Alexa” as she falls asleep.

The tools are almost the easy part. The intuition is hard—and fraught. To give the home the ability to draw conclusions about our needs means we need to think about privacy and sharing information with a home—or the company behind it. In Anwuli’s case, she has turned off the filter in her home as a form of defiance against her former fiancé, allowing the home to diagnose her with allergies and formulate an appropriate protective response without ever telling her.

Allowing a home to take in more data gives it the context needed to become more intelligent, but are we sure we want that? Aside from the privacy implications, we don’t have the legal infrastructure yet to protect our homes from incriminating us. Today a husband can keep his wife’s secrets in court thanks to marital privilege, but our homes offer us no such immunity. Imagine if your home intuited your allergies only to call up your insurance provider. Or that you were pregnant and called your boss or marketers to let them know. These aren’t far-fetched use cases, given the power of connected devices today.

Absent rules and expectations around what happens to a smart home’s data, it’s hard to trust the companies sucking up gobs of information about us. Instead of an intuitive home, we get the dystopia that Gizmodo writer Kashmir Hill discovered after turning her own home smart. At the end of her experiment, she wrote: “Talking to the human who actually got to see and analyze my smart home’s activity made me realize just how deeply uncomfortable it is to have that data pooled somewhere.”

Let’s say we successfully tackle the challenge of providing context while respecting user privacy, and give a house the mechanical tools needed to provide for the humans living in the home. There will still be a question of how well technology can manage the needs of the many individuals living in a home.

In my home today, my 11-year-old daughter was almost invisible. At first it was because she didn’t have a smartphone, and thus the ability to control devices from an app, or the ability to trigger a nearby lock with the Bluetooth radio in a phone. But once we got an Amazon Echo in 2014, she suddenly had agency to control the music and devices around her. Voice assistants democratized access to the smart home for anyone in the house, which includes allowing any visitor the ability to change your thermostat or order products if the proper safeguards aren’t set. But personalization derived from context can’t happen for children, because federal law says that until then, companies can’t track them or use their data.

And then there is the challenge of navigating competing needs by different household members. A perfect example of this is the temperature wars that occur in my house after dark, when I turn the thermostat to 65 and my daughter comes in later to move it up to 70. Later I wake up hot and restart the cycle. No amount of intelligence is going to let my Nest serve two masters who want different things. In fairness to technology, people can’t do this, either.

Where it gets interesting is how a home might adapt its needs automatically. Should my home honor my preferences above others because I spend the most time in it? Should it honor my husband’s because he pays the bills, or perhaps my daughter’s because my overarching goal as a parent is to protect her and make my life comfortable? Outside of the family, should my home take into consideration the needs of the local community or energy provider? What about my parents who are aging in place and need a little extra monitoring? What kind of say do they get?

Right now, the owner of the app connected to a device gets all the admin privileges (although no real control over how the data is used and by whom). In the home, will this repeat itself?

In “Mother of Invention,” Nnedi Okorafor offers an even more sinister turn on this inability to serve multiple masters by implying that the home will prioritize the preferences of whoever is in the house the most. This is how machines are trained today, so it makes sense. But in my smart home future, I’m curious what happens if my Obi 3 adapts itself to my life only to revert abruptly to the bank’s point of view if I can’t pay my mortgage one month.

Maybe we don’t want to embrace the smart home without discussing these issues.