Home tech: New devices are still not smart enough
The list of voice-activated gadgets you can buy for your home is getting “longer and weirder,” said Jennifer Jolly in USA Today. Dozens of gizmos powered by Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant vied for attention at this year’s CES technology trade show in Las Vegas, anticipating “a future where our voices are like remote controls for our homes.” You can now ask your refrigerator to order groceries when you’ve run out. ShadeCraft Sunflower, a robotic umbrella, will fire up your summer playlist on demand. Wagz Smart Dog Collar will open Fido’s doggy door or refill his smart feeder. “Clearly, tech companies are desperately trying to jump on the ‘smart’ bandwagon,” said Sascha Brodsky in Observer.com. Yes, the “AmazonBasics microwave connects to the Alexa voice control service to cook popcorn on demand”—but you need to put popcorn inside in advance. What’s the point?
All this technology is terrible at the combinations of actions that humans actually need done, said David Pierce in The Wall Street Journal. “Voice-controlled assistants have hit a wall where they perform a specific set of tasks well and not much else.” In theory, having a smart home sounds great. Shout something like “OK Google, good morning!” and your digital assistant will open the blinds, turn on the lights, and start playing the radio. In practice, it almost never works like this. First, you need devices that all work with the same assistant, “because Alexa, Siri, and Google aren’t on speaking terms.” Then, you have to program cumbersome and infuriating routines. “A sufficiently smart home should observe and adapt to your needs,” not ask you to adapt to your smart devices.
Tech companies are “aggressively trying to convince you that voice assistants are actually useful,” said Lauren Goode in Wired. And they are getting better at anticipating users’ needs. Programmers have given Alexa “hunches.” For example, if you tell Alexa you’re leaving the house, it will suggest you turn off the lights. Google Assistant is also getting more conversational, able to respond to multiple questions without your having to keep saying, “OK, Google.” But they “still require us, the real humans in the equation, to talk to them like robots.” And it turns out that they ask for a lot in return. To get all of this technology to work, you need to give your devices “precious, intimate” access to your home, said Sam Biddle in TheIntercept.com. Some of them use that access cavalierly. Amazon’s Ring security camera allegedly let its team see “every video created by every Ring camera around the world.” So much for the promise that the internet-connected home was to be not only “a monument to convenience, but also to protection.” ■