Society Will Benefit from Smarter Homes

IEEE President Michel calls on technologists to ensure responsible development

8 December 2015

The self-driving car you’re in pulls into your driveway, triggering a sensor in one of the car’s doors to turn on your home’s interior lights and open the garage. As the car parks itself, its sensors recognize that exhaust fumes are no longer being produced and send a signal to close the garage door.

As you walk to your home, a wireless signal from your wearables hub triggers the door to unlock. You step through the door and your smart wristband reminds you to walk your dog. It also notifies you that the veterinarian will be refilling a prescription because the wellness chip embedded in the dog indicates that medication levels for your pet’s chronic condition are too low.

You then go to the refrigerator, which displays a list of possible food choices to ensure that your daily calorie consumption remains in the recommended 2,000- to 2,500-calorie range. The list is prioritized for items in the refrigerator nearing their expiration dates.

Meanwhile, your home’s thermostat, having registered your presence, is increasing the heat to reach the preset temperatures in the rooms you normally occupy. Sensors in the ceiling have detected elevated levels of stress-indicative corticosteroids in your bloodstream, have put on your favorite music, and have displayed on your wristband the recipe for a cocktail that you saw online and marked for future use.

Some of what you’ve just read is available now or could be coming soon. We’re still some steps away from truly “smart” homes; what I’ve just described only scratches the surface of what’s possible. The time-sensitive maintenance tasks surrounding home ownership, in-home health monitoring for the aged and disabled, the most efficient power consumption—smart homes are poised to become extensions of the people living in them. The homes will essentially function as part of a nearly autonomous ecosystem, rather than require a building’s occupants to control them.

To think of smart homes as single entities, however, does a disservice to their potential. When a home is smart, its occupants benefit. When all homes are smart, society benefits—through reduced power consumption, intelligent provision of health care, and so on. This is especially true in so-called smart cities, in which smart homes will provide improvements and efficiencies at the micro level while smarter infrastructures complement these efforts at the macro level.

TOUGH QUESTIONS

Smarter homes, however, raise security questions. What if your home is hacked and no longer recognizes you? What if a computer virus deactivates your home security system? What if a denial-of-service attack renders useless thousands of smart homes housing our aged?

Some may argue that these are outlier questions. However, security must be at the fore when making homes smarter. But it cannot be the only consideration.

Today, an elderly or disabled person can press a button on a wearable and have it trigger a remote alarm for help. In a smart home, technology could automate that process so the individual need not decide if assistance is needed. That could lead to systems’ alerting first responders, even if the individuals did not need help.

When this happens on an individual basis, it is a false alarm. When it happens at a societal level—when dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of these false alarms are being triggered—the systems in place for initial public safety and health responses may be overwhelmed.

And then consider the data a person interacting with a smart home can generate. Does that data belong to the person? Does it belong to the manufacturer of the machine that captures that data? Can the government monitor it in the name of national security? The legal, ethical, and regulatory questions surrounding the issues of data, privacy, and security are staggering and must be considered long before smart homes become widespread.

In the years ahead, smart homes will be created, developed, and improved by our global professional community. It is critical that technical professionals not limit their role to creating the hardware, software, and interfaces. As a community, we should consider the resp­onsible development of these technologies in the smart-home ecosystem and how to best play a role in shaping their adoption.

I welcome your perspectives on what you believe the future holds for smart homes. Please send your views to president@ieee.org.

This article originally appeared in print as “Home, Smart Home.”

This article is part of our December 2015 special report on smart homes.

Learn More