Should This Thing Be Smart? Microwave Edition.

Make that Alexa-enabled Amazon microwave edition.

An AmazonBasics Microwave.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Amazon.

In Should This Thing Be Smart?, Justin Peters examines a smart object and tries to determine whether there is any good reason for its existence—and how likely it is to be used for nefarious reasons. Previously on Should This Thing Be Smart?: the $60 smart fork, the $199 smart socks, the $80 coffee mug, the $99 button, the $99 toothbrush, the $99 dog collar, the $1,199 mirror, and the $199 bike lock.

Name: AmazonBasics Microwave

Price: $59.99 on Amazon

Function: The AmazonBasics Microwave is a Wi-Fi-enabled microwave that pairs with your Amazon Echo device to allow for intuitive, voice-activated cooking. “Microwave for 10 minutes on high,” you can say, and 10 minutes later you’ll have yourself a very hot dog. If you are feeling vague or indecisive, you can also just tell the device to “microwave one hot dog,” and it will automatically do so for the appropriate length of time. Don’t worry, though, this microwave cooks more than just hot dogs. It also cooks microwave popcorn, for instance, and it pairs with Amazon’s optional auto popcorn replenishment service to order more popcorn for you when it senses that your supplies are running low. If you have been looking to outsource your shopping decisions to your microwave, then the AmazonBasics Microwave may be the microwave for you.

The case for the smart microwave: The AmazonBasics Microwave is a very interesting microwave! It is intelligent insofar as it can respond to the human voice—in tandem with the Amazon Echo, of course—and has memorized the appropriate microwave cooking times and temperatures for a wide range of foods. This last skill is one that eludes most human beings. There are approximately seven people on Earth who have ever taken the time to learn how to properly program their microwaves. The rest of us just insert the food to be reheated, pick a cook time that sounds about right, and hope for the best. The microwave cookery process is filled with guesswork and regrets.

The smart microwave refines the user error out of the microwave cooking process. It comes preprogrammed with a list of more than two dozen foodstuffs that it will cook, reheat, or defrost by voice activation. “Reheat one sandwich,” you will say, and the microwave will automatically reheat that sandwich for the proper length of time. Unappetizing and mushy sandwiches will soon be a thing of the past. You will be able to enjoy leftovers again. Defrosting meats will soon become a delightful diversion rather than a hated chore. Thanks, AmazonBasics Microwave!

The smart microwave will be a boon for those people who lack the visual acuity or manual dexterity necessary to consistently operate a standard microwave. Using a microwave isn’t always easy if you have poor eyesight, or if, say, you’ve had a stroke; the task requires a measure of hand-eye coordination that can elude the differently abled. The AmazonBasics Microwave’s voice activation feature will help these people to set their microwave’s timer without having to fiddle with the keypad and will thus restore to them a measure of control over their kitchens.

The AmazonBasics Microwave will be a godsend for incompetent home chefs. Earlier this year, my father tried to cook a piece of salmon in the microwave for 30 minutes, which is a laughably excessive timespan. It sounded right to him, though, because he is bad at cooking, and also because he had had one too many beers, I think. Anyway, when all was said and done, it was hard to tell where the fish ended and the microwave began. The house smelled like smoke for a week, and my parents had to get a new microwave. The AmazonBasics Microwave will reduce your household’s risk of Dad-induced kitchen accidents.

The smart microwave will save you time, and as everyone knows, time is money. Assume that the smart microwave will save you one second every time you use it. If you use it five times per day, then by the end of the month you will be about two minutes and 30 seconds richer. You can spend your new bounty by listening to a relatively short song, such as “Rich Girl” by Hall and Oates. Next month you can listen to it again. By the end of the year, you will have the song memorized. The AmazonBasics Microwave will improve your recall of Hall and Oates lyrics.

When Alexa is enabled and the Wi-Fi signal is on, the smart microwave will set its own clock. If you have ever been late for something because you were relying on the inaccurate time display on your microwave’s clock, then you know that this is a pretty big deal. You will never again be able to blame your microwave for the fact that you missed your train. Instead, all the blame will redound to you, and you will have to live with it. The AmazonBasics Microwave will teach you personal responsibility.

The case against the smart microwave: The smart microwave is not actually all that smart. It does not use sensors and math to determine the appropriate cook time for the food and drink you put into its radiating maw. Rather, it works from a very specific list of presets, and that list is pretty limited at the moment. (As of this writing, the list does not include pizza, which is a Top 10 most-microwaved foodstuff for sure.) This is sort of like claiming that a Big Mouth Billy Bass is smart because it has been programmed to sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Call me when you’re able to write your own music, Big Mouth Billy Bass. Where was I? Oh, yes, this microwave. Not actually that smart!

The AmazonBasics Microwave may not actually save you much time at all, since you will have to stop and force yourself to speak in the stilted, precise language that the voice-activation feature requires. “Alexa, reheat 8 ounces of casserole” is one command that the Quick-Cook Voice Presets Guide suggests you use, and the mere act of speaking this sentence will make you profoundly depressed. Moreover, if you can accurately eyeball the weight of a portion of leftover casserole, then you are probably some sort of culinary savant who enjoys spending time in the kitchen and thus does not need to save a second here and there by talking to his microwave.

Standard microwaves are not actually inconvenient to use. “What a drag, I have to punch four buttons on this microwave, who has the time?” is a sentence that no one has ever said. Sure, most of us aren’t microwave maestros, but we can all manage well enough. I understand that the smart microwave may aid kitchen idiots like my father and may also help the visually impaired to zap their cold pizza, but how much work will it actually save everyone else? Precious little. I hate to break it to you, but “Rich Girl” is not that great of a song.

The smart microwave’s promise of a hands-free cooking experience is at best incomplete, because you will still have to use your hands to open the microwave and insert the food. Or will you? I suppose you could devise some sort of Rube Goldberg device to open and close the microwave door and insert/retrieve your food for you, but, then again, if you are too lazy to press four buttons on a microwave, then you are certainly too lazy to build a comically elaborate door-opening device.

If you mumble or have other speech problems, I suspect that the smart microwave will not work all that well for you. “Cook a ham” may well be interpreted as “cook a hand,” and before you know it, the police will be at your door demanding to know exactly whom you have dismembered. You will have to take many expensive elocution lessons prior to buying the microwave in order to avoid this dire fate. The smart microwave will drive you to financial ruin.

If the smart microwave were really smart, it would exhort you to refrain from reheating your food at all and instead embrace the health benefits of a local, organic raw food diet.

Security concerns: While it might be embarrassing for hackers to have access to records of just how much microwave popcorn you eat, I can’t see how that would be particularly dangerous, unless the hackers are running some sort of very, very long con that involves them tracking your junk food consumption over time.

Turns out, though, that there are bigger things to worry about. “The canonical security risk for [Internet of Things] devices is often large-scale, remote abuse. That is, a hacker identifies a flaw in a particular model of device and then remotely controls all instances of that device around the world. In the case of an Alexa-controllable microwave, the likely threat would be to activate the microwave remotely either to waste electricity or to overcook items that are inside the microwave (and potentially try to set them on fire),” University of Chicago computer scientist Blase Ur told me in a recent email. “A worst-case movie-like scenario I could imagine would be that a hacker waits until peak power usage (e.g., the hottest day of the year) and then triggers all microwaves in a region, leading to power grid instability. Similarly, the attacker might try to run all microwaves indefinitely, hoping to ignite food items that are left inside them. This is far-fetched, although somewhat plausible.”

A less far-fetched scenario? Those meddling kids! “What I perceive as a far more likely scenario, but less like a movie plot, is that this microwave’s main security threat comes not from hackers, but from children,” Ur continued. “If kids realize that talking to Alexa lets them activate lights and cause noise, otherwise known as running the microwave, they will be tempted to do that. This will lead to a big waste of electricity or, more alarmingly, the potential for them to overcook food (and possibly cause a fire or other terrible outcome) if a parent puts food in the microwave and walks away for a few minutes.” The obvious solution here: Do not have kids—or, if you already have them, give them to your neighbor. It’s the only way that you can be assured of using your smart microwave in peace.

Is the smart microwave more likely to be used to solve or commit a crime? To solve the terrible crimes committed by the elusive Hand-in-Microwave Killer.

Should this thing be smart? Believe it or not, yes, I think this thing should be smart. The salient point in its favor is its cost. Irrespective of its smartness, the AmazonBasics Microwave is an affordable microwave. If this were a $699 smart microwave, then I would clearly and precisely tell the smart microwave to microwave itself until it melted. But this thing hits the sweet spot of being cheaper and presumably just as effective as most nonsmart items of its kind while also containing a “smart” functionality that makes it incrementally more efficient than other microwaves.