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Robots not yet ready to enter smart homes, says expert

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TechTalk – Smart Homes: Interview with Matt Davis, of SCM World, about smart homes and intelligent buildings of the future. Courtesy of Currys PC World

The phrase “bricks and mortar” is till used to conjure up images of buildings, residential or commercial. Usually, the phrase differentiates between something virtual or exists only in computers, say a website for a shop, and something that is physical, like an actual, real-world shop on the high street, for example. 

But, along with everything else in the known world, bricks-and-mortar building are being computerised. Those that have already integrated some degree of computer technology are often called “smart homes”, if they are residential, and “intelligent buildings”, if they are commercial.

A lot of experts say that over the next decade or so, the vast majority of buildings – commercial and residential – will become computerised, or become “smarter”.

In the first of two interviews about the subject, we publish a Q&A with Matt Davis, senior vice president, SCM World, a cross-industry learning community backed by some of the world’s most influential supply chain practitioners. 

How do you see our homes changing over the next 10 to 20 years?

matt davis scm world
Matt Davis, SCM World

Matt Davis: The first thing that most consumers will embrace, and are already embracing in their homes, is convenience and the automation of daily tasks.

So I think more people will start building light schedules into their homes, so if they forget to turn their lights off, it’s all taken care of. Or instead of having an alarm, your bedroom lights could gradually come on to wake you up.

Through centralised and remote control of smart devices we’ll also be able to control anything from remote door locks to coffee pots from a wall panel or smart phone. Added convenience through controlled thermostats and similar devices will also make our homes more efficient, and our planet more sustainable.

But then there’s also the smart home of the future that you won’t really be involved in. So over time, what I think will end up happening is, smart devices will start making decisions for you.

They’ll analyse how you use your home and your preferences and start making decisions according to your schedule. So in that way, you’re never even in the equation. And that’s where I think the real value is, and where we’re heading. Connected to that are appliances like smart refrigerators placing orders for you, and replenishment orders from companies such as Amazon.

Today we’re at a stage where there’s still a need for manual intervention to run a smart home. But I think in the not too distant future, the objective will be to have one that actually runs itself. You would only be in charge of the exceptions, so to speak. So, for example, when you go on holiday and are breaking a regular routine, you might adjust settings for appliances, lights, security and your automated orders.

When do you foresee us moving from the manual intervention stage to the autonomous stage?

It is really difficult to predict. In the next five years, what you’ll see is a lot of smart devices in the home, but the next leap forward will be when it’s really easy to connect all of your devices to one control panel on a unified technology platform. That’s when we’ll move to a unified user interface that allows for autonomy.

Currently you have a bunch of different tech providers trying to own smart home, but you also have the appliance manufacturers, builders, network providers, and big players like Google and Verizon all trying to figure it out.

So you literally have thousands and thousands of players trying to make smart devices, and I think things will only really start to take off, when there’s a platform that unifies them all. The next big innovations

What are the most exciting smart home tech innovations on the horizon?

For me personally, I think it’s the innovations in connected healthcare because they’ll fundamentally change so many different things. They will change the healthcare system. They will change human health. They will change our willingness to use connected products and wearable devices.

In the US, we’re in an interesting place at the moment, because a lot of people would prefer healthcare to be aligned with personal responsibility, and a connected home is the way to make that happen.

One of the coolest connected healthcare devices I’ve seen was pretty simple. It was a sensor that you can have embedded below the carpet on your floor that can actually sense a fall. And so, if you’re older and walking around your house and you fall, it sends a signal directly to a hierarchy of different response agencies, based on what it senses.

So that’s a really small case of an innovative connected healthcare product for the home but there are other examples, like connected toilets. These have sensors built in to the toilet bowel which can monitor and detect different elements of your health. Interestingly, there’s a great Intel study from 2013 which found that the majority of people would be willing to use connected products in smart homes if two things occur.

  1. If it’s more convenient.
  2. If it improves the quality of their care.

So I think that could be a huge area of smart home tech innovation.

What do you think about connected fridges? Do you think they’re the next big thing?

Well, that’s a technology that’s been around for a while. But what gets missed is you could have had a connected refrigerator 10-15 years ago but there was no supply chain to bring, for example, your milk directly to your house.

So the idea was around, it’s just there was no supply chain to support it and it was too expensive. That’s why Amazon has gotten into groceries and recently released the Dash Button. Essentially, it’s a Wi-Fi connected device that reorders your favourite products and household items with the simple press of a button.

But I would question whether we really need a fridge that tracks exactly how we’re using things. Instead, we could use an algorithm that knows your top twenty most used products, how many people are in the house and how often you’re home, and calculates your consumption to work out when you need replenishment. It already works for dog food – I use a dog food subscription delivery service myself. I think the same thing could work for groceries too.

How much should consumers be worried about data privacy when it comes to the Internet of Things?

So I think this is really a generational issue. As you move down into millennials or even Gen X, there’s less of a concern about it. Millennials are almost completely willing to give away information if it makes their life more convenient.

So it’s one of those things where generations adapt. You’ll probably see early adopters in the younger generations and they’ll be completely comfortable giving away their information.

Do you think there’s a genuine risk of say our homes being hacked or broken into, with all this info stored on us?

Well, I think security is one of the biggest questions that has to be asked of technology. But I think the actual risk is more related to any sort of tracking that becomes a predictive algorithm and assumes behaviour before it happens. These algorithms might not always be right.

Also, I think any kind of penalty-based algorithm is scary. Imagine, for example, if behavioural algorithms controlled your healthcare premiums. Say you eat a sugar doughnut and as part of your algorithm, all of a sudden your premiums go up. The behavioural algorithm might not ‘know’ other ways in which you may have off-set that sugary doughnut for example going for a run. So its punitive decisions might be unfair and unreasonable.

Do you think robotics will play a key role in the development of smart home technology?

It could in the more distant future, but we’re thinking about it in the wrong way. People tend to imagine robotics will be like the Jetsons and the way they used their home, instead of really re-thinking what a smart home could be.

At the moment we’re really talking about substitutes. But instead of having a robot that makes breakfast for you, I actually think it would be easier to have breakfast delivered directly to your house and centralise the robotics capability.

So the robotics could be in a centralised kitchen that serves an urban city centre and by having robotics in that kitchen they make 10,000 breakfasts via a supply chain or a drone that comes directly to your house, bringing a delivery that’s still warm.

But I think businesses will end up answering the question of whether the cost of putting robotics in your house really beats a major business player that can use robotics to serve the population. I think that question has yet to be answered.

So you don’t think robotics is the next big thing that’ll be taking over our homes in the next 10 years?

I think we’ll have some robots. Do I think we’re going to have a robot butler or robot chef? It still seems a bit farfetched to me. And I think if you look at where robotics companies and the manufacturers of robotics are currently focusing, we’re expecting a huge shift to robotics in production facilities and distribution facilities first, before it extends more fully into the home.

If they’re automating manufacturing and the physical move of products, they’re going to make a lot more money selling to corporations who are actively looking for those investments now, than creating a robot butler for your house. So I think in the next five years, I’d say robots in the home is not as likely as, for example, a connected home.

Is there a specific area where robots could really improve our homes?

At first, robots will only really be able to help with repeatable, binary tasks. So any process that’s pretty consistent, where the decision-making is binary, meaning yes or no, or involves a series of decisions where the answers are always yes or no, that’s where the bots are coming into play. That’s what the average consumer may not realise about robotics.

They might say, “Oh it’s going to make breakfast for me, that’s great!” Well, it’s only going to make you something off a menu of things that you already know and it’s going to make them the exact same way.

So every time you order scrambled eggs and fried potatoes it’s going to follow the exact same steps. It’s a huge win to have these sort of robots, obviously – but initial products will be limited with regards to creativity. In the end though, I think the consistency of their output is what we will really value.

Do you think we have any reason to fear the rise of robots in our homes?

The practical thing to worry about is all the repair and maintenance that comes with actual physical devices. We’re going to go through wave after wave of innovation from hundreds of different companies making robots. But they may not be thinking about the after-market, and all the spare parts and things like that. It’s the same issue people have had with their cars.

They buy really cool features and then it breaks. That’s largely been resolved because the car industry has figured out the after-market. But from a practical perspective, just think about how many things might need to get fixed with robotics, and how a service or parts manufacturing industry still doesn’t exist to support it. So in terms of a robot taking over my house and murdering me – no I’m not worried about that.

Does the rise of robots pose any moral or cultural dilemmas?

I do think there is a moral question about the way in which we treat our robots and therefore end up treating people. We’ve seen how current social technology has changed personal relationships. Friendships, communication and the way we all communicate has changed. So the moral question with robotics is: how will our use of them impact the way we interact within and across society?

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