The coffee machine has burbled into life, the aroma wafts temptingly from the kitchen. In the bedroom my sleep monitor suggests I need to wake up in the next ten minutes and the daylight bulb in the lamp starts to glow into life. A few minutes later a gentle birdsong lulls me from my slumber, followed by the tinkling of the alarm that officially signals the start of the day. Get up, sleepyhead.
It’s a cold morning but thankfully the heating has been on for a few minutes to be at just the temperature I like so I don’t have the shock of the cold morning air to deal with.
I tell the alarm to stop, get up and walk to the bathroom, the light flickering on as I reach the door. I ask for my daily summary, and brush my teeth whilst listening to the voice that emits from the nearest speaker to confirm that the delivery I’m expecting today left the depot 40 mins ago and is scheduled to be with me between 2 and 3pm. It also tells me that there will be some light showers this morning, before reading me the news headlines and letting me know it’s sorry that the Lakers lost, again.
Back to the bedroom and I get dressed and tell the curtains to open. I drop my dirty clothes in the washing basket (it remains quiet as the basket is only half full), and head to the kitchen to grab a cup of freshly brewed coffee. I pour in some milk, tossing the empty carton in the bin and as I close the fridge door the panel on the front lights up to confirm that ‘Milk’ has been added to my shopping list.
I ask for the radio to play 6Music whilst I make myself some breakfast.
Welcome to the future.
OK, welcome to MY future, YMMV.
I grew up in a world of Star Wars, Buck Rogers, Space: 1999, Star Trek and more. One of the first novels I read was 2001 (and all three sequels). I love Sci-Fi and the closer we get to some of the ideas that have been floating around in my pop culture subconscious since I was a child the more excited I get at the possibilities all this new technology may bring.
The scary realisation is that this new connected and automated world isn’t all that far away. Most, if not all, of these products already exist and I won’t lie, the geek in me is excited to live in such times. By most accounts the next 10 years will see voice activated automation (aka digital assistants) become the ‘norm’. Sound ridiculous? Well, it was only 10 years ago that the iPhone was launched and popularised the idea of a smart phone which brought touch screen to the masses. Can you remember getting your first smart-phone and how ‘magic’ a good touch-screen device was? I don’t think it’s so fanciful to imagine this all happening in my own lifetime (and I’m already middle aged!).
Of course some of these connected devices sound ridiculous. I do not need an ‘intelligent clothes basket’ to tell me that I need to put a wash on, and I don’t really need motorised, controllable curtains.
On the other hand I live alone so whilst they may seem a little extraneous for my needs, a family of four might see the intelligent clothes basket as a wonderful addition, and for those not physically able to close curtains having a device you can command to do such things would be a welcome help.
However many of these products have been around for a while. You can buy sleep monitoring apps/devices that wake you when they think it’s best, rather than at a pre-set time. Sunrise lamps have been around for years (I use something similar to this myself), coffee machines have had timers in them for decades, and motion activated lights definitely aren’t new. Admittedly things like smart fridges and tiny computers that listen to your every word and await your command (ohhh powerful one) are still rare beasts, although Amazon Alexa is already challenging that notion, but the software they are using is several years old and improving rapidly as it matures.
And all of that is before we even crack open the lid on recent advances being made in A.I. which, for the sake of brevity I’ll leave for another time (but as a starter, feel free to dive into the rabbit-hole with this article on Google Translate).
Ever since we started stepping towards the Internet of Things, such products and services have intrigued me, making me wonder how close we are to the future I envisioned as a child. I still kindle the hope that all of these wondrous new technologies will work together in perfect harmony. The robot butler of my dreams is much closer than it has ever been.
Yet, unfortunately, I think my dreams will need to remain as they are for a time yet, I think that reality is still a ways off and the central point of contention that will thwart adoption of such wondrous technological advances will be something more mundane.
Standards (and the lack thereof).
Amazon, Google, Apple, and every other company in this space, all want you to exclusively use their stuff, they are companies, that’s what companies should do. As a result I’ve not seen many steps towards a global (yes my US friends, there are other tech users in the world) standard for home automation. To be frank from the outside looking in, which is where the vast majority of people are, it all looks like a bit of a mess. Even the most mature product, Amazon’s Alexa, requires a myriad of connected services and some IFTTT loops to get some things to work, and if you happen to have the wrong 3rd party device or service then, sorry, you won’t even be able to connect them at all.
And there’s the rub, I can’t trust that any connected device I purchase in the future will work well with the ones I already own.
For example, I currently have a few LIFX light bulbs at home. I bought the first one via Kickstarter (cos, geek) and I use IFTTT to control a couple of them based on arbitrary things like my location or when the sun is setting to turn them on. All of my computing tech is Apple based but can I control them using SIRI? No, because they aren’t part of the ‘HomeKit’ world (yet? who knows). I could control them using Alexa or Google Home but that requires purchasing more tech to control my existing tech, and doing more connecting of services and applications.
I already use multiple services from different companies, so I’m used to this world. I have an Amazon Prime account which I can only watch through my PlayStation as it’s not supported on my AppleTV. I use Google for my personal email and calendar, and Spotify is my music streaming of choice, all of which mean I can’t ask Siri for help because she only cares about Apple Music, and I find myself replicating my Google calendar data in Apple’s calendar just to have the data available to other services within the Apple sphere. It’s madness!
Only Netflix seems to play nice with everyone else, it’s everywhere. But then, it’s a standalone company with everything to gain by being available everywhere. Amazon, Apple, and Google all want me to use THEIR content on THEIR devices. Which means I lose out as a consumer. Yeah, this connected world isn’t sounding so great after all.
I want a smart home, I want smart automation, I want a robot butler. But I also want fewer smart things, not more. Fewer devices, fewer services. I do not want to have two or more content streaming devices just so i can watch the content that I want to watch. It all feels very disconnected and right now it’s the customers that are feeling the brunt. Sure you can have all this cool new stuff but damn, it’s gonna suck the life outta ya trying to get it work.
And so it seems that the future of anything akin to a singular, properly intelligent, home (life?) automation assistant is left to chance, or at the very least, hope. I hope that IFTTT will continue to grow and add new services, I hope that Amazon, Google, and Apple will support more and more 3rd party applications and I hope that new hardware will not be slow to be accessible in all ecosystems. I hope that buying a new device in the future won’t require me to authenticate it, and a new service that supports it, across multiple different services and platforms (security issues not withstanding).
I want fewer things, not more. I want less hassle, not more. I am the epitome of wanting tech to ‘just work’.
I guess the challenge is that one of the big players needs to be first to open their doors to this, the first to put the customer at the heart of all of this and say ‘hey, you know what, connect to us, run our app on any device you want, we don’t want you to have to jump through hoops any more’ and I just don’t see that happening.
Welcome to the future! Come on in and enjoy all this cool stuff that happens because it knows when and where it should happen. Yeah my front door unlocked itself as I walked up the driveway, how cool is that? Sure my mattress knows I didn’t sleep well and will send a message to my boss saying I’ll be in a little late this morning, doesn’t yours? Of course I can issue one command and have the lights dim, the surround sound system turn on and the movie channel opened on my TV (and yeah, of course the popcorn maker fires up at the same time!). This is the future, it’s totally awesome!
Just do me one favour, ignore the mess.
Note that I’m only considering home assistant/automation, it’s whole other world when it comes to cars ; do YOU want to be choosing your next car based on the digital assistant it has and if it will ‘play nice’ with everything else you already have?
Then consider everything outside of your home and car. What if my nearest supermarket chooses to partner with Google, but I’ve gone down the Amazon route? That advert that is offering a discount on my lunch to all Cortana users is lost to me and poor old Siri.
I’m sure smart people will figure a lot of this stuff out but is does feel like we are at a tipping point. It’s going from ‘why would I want’ to ‘how did I live without’ and I’m old enough to remember this happening with microwaves and home computers. And sure, that’s all well and good, that’s what progress is I guess, but for us poor schmucks who just want things to work, well I think it’s about to get even more messy indeed.
Also published on Medium.