Smart Home or Stupid Idea?

Public opinion is split about when the mythical ‘Home of the Future’ will arrive – if at all.

by / July 16, 2012

Homes don't seem to change much over time. We still have log cabins, for example, some 400 years after the first ones were constructed in North America. And even though most modern versions are required to meet building codes and will most likely have electricity, running water and Internet connectivity -- why should we expect the home of tomorrow to differ wildly from today's?

Some 1,000 people were asked to respond to what they thought the "Home of the Future" would be like in a Pew Internet and American Life study on smart systems. The responses were evenly split between those who agreed that energy- and money-saving “smart systems” will be significantly closer to reality in people’s homes by 2020 and those who said such homes will still remain a marketing mirage.

That's a bit daunting for Americans -- beset by a lousy economy, unemployment, bankrupt cities and a presidential campaign -- who look to the future for a happier, more fulfilling life. "What?" they might say, "in 2020, we'll still be living with dial-up Internet and a busted dishwasher?" Part of the problem, it seems, is people who seem to like dumb systems, keep reminders stuck to the refrigerator with magnets rather than Outlook reminders or Apple's Siri, people who don't have a lot of money for digital gadgets and can muddle through with analog stuff. People who like to drive a stick shift, and who refuse to let go of the wheel and let the car park itself.

We've been predicting the "Internet of Things" -- and the related subject of machine-to-machine communication -- since the 1990s. With Internet moving to the IPv6 next-generation standard, we'll have enough Internet addresses to link up everything from olive trees to Volkswagens and pacemakers. Cisco estimates we will have some 50 billion connected devices by 2020, which should cheer up those people who still want a house like the Jetsons.

The Naysayers

Among the obstacles to public acceptance of smart systems, said the Pew report, are concerns over centralized control of systems by companies. "We are already witnessing rejection of many smart-grid initiatives," said Microsoft's Christian Huitema in the study. "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.”

And there are bigger concerns. Say you have a coffeemaker with a timer set to start brewing at 6 a.m. You get up, coffee's ready when you get out of the shower. But then a hacker gets in, changes the clock and makes it early so it tastes bad. Exposing complex systems to hacking was a big issue for respondents. And if you get hit by a driverless car, who do you sue? And what if a hacker hacks into the driverless cars and turns them into a real-life version of Grand Theft Auto? Or hackers get into your 3-D printer and instead of making that new set of dishes you ordered, it turns out 1,000 ceramic mustaches?

Other concerns noted by respondents were lack of interoperability driven by companies' struggles for market share; the relentless upgrades, new operating systems and patches that would hit the homeowner for multiple gadgets and not just computers. And there was some concern that smart systems could be turned against the homeowner to ration utilities or for other dastardly purposes.

Americans always have looked to the future as the land of opportunity, even when it didn't turn out as pictured in the movies. Americans need a lift, a success, a vision of the future that looks better than today. But a vision of smart systems is guarded at best, and is likely to remain so until some of the trust issues are swept away.

At Issue: Are smart systems an attainable vision of tomorrow with the removal of a few obstacles, or another Concorde that will prove too expensive, complex and impractical?


Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.