Nesting, In Home Smart Home
31 Jan 2014

by tmartin on January 31, 2014

MY SMOKE DETECTOR MAKES ME CRY. This detector isn’t a depot-cheapo. The electrician who installed it charged, well, a real bill for it. I like the idea of fire safety.

If only!

On a regular basis, this creature screams about frying bacon, seared pork chops, and stir fried vegetables with a shrill and ceaseless tone.

When both reset button and waving dishtowel strategies fail there’s just one solution left: I rip it off the wall, and hurl it out the door, sending it unceremoniously bouncing into the yard with my own howl of auditory agony.

Somehow, I don’t think this was the idea behind smoke detectors.

If we can engineer nanobots, self-driving cars, and wearable computers … surely someone can make a smoke detector that doesn’t create endless false alarms over low batteries and cooking carrots!

So I was delighted a couple months ago when I learned about the Nest Protect (https://nest.com/smoke-co-alarm). It promised that “Safety Shouldn’t Be Annoying.”

It was like the ad copy read my mind!

“No more waking up at 2 am to low battery chirps that could be coming from anywhere… We made a smoke and CO alarm you’ll love, because hating it is dangerous… we hear smoke alarms cry wolf so often that the alarm isn’t doing its job anymore…”

OMG, they get it! Only the $129 price tag stopped me from making an immediate purchase.

Nest comes with the kind of design pedigree that stops you in your tracks. Did you love your iPod? Do you adore your iPhone? Did these devices change the whole category of mobile music and cell phones? Uh, yeah.

Nest founder Tony Fadell created the Mobile Computing Group at Philips Electronics, then went on to Apple, where he created the iPod concept and design. In 2010 he launched Nest, putting his signature hardware approach on thermostats and smoke detectors. A mobile app on your phone or tablet lets you control the devices from anywhere … and lets them send you alerts and updates.

As it turns out, Google must have really loved its iPod, too. Or really hated its smoke detectors. Or has some future designs on homes equipped with smart thermostats. Because earlier this month, the company snatched up Nest for $3.2 billion!

Yes, this is Google … so of course we’re talking Billion with a B. And because, yes, this is Google, the acquisition set off a flurry of speculation and fear over the search titan’s ultimate motives.

Now, for most deep-pocketed competitive companies, the idea of buying one of the hottest hardware design teams and acquiring a suite of trendy high-end and strongly-selling home devices already churning out revenue might be enough reason for an acquisition.

This week Google sold off its 2011-purchase, Motorola, to Lenovo for $2.91 Billion, which if you think of in a simplistic sort of way mostly covers the cost of buying Nest.

Ah, but yes, this is Google, so there must be more – and the pundits’ smoke detectors have started beeping like crazy.

Someplace along the line the company whose unofficial motto was once “don’t be evil” has morphed into the big gorilla threat to privacy everywhere for everyone.

Take the specter of adding digital eyes and ears in the home in addition to search, email, and social media along with Google’s buying binge for companies with artificial intelligence talent and … yikes!

Google likes to buy talent, not merely product lines. Just over a year ago, in late 2012, Google brought machine intelligence luminary Ray Kurzweil into its fold. (http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/513696/deep-learning/)

Last week it bought a London-based AI research group called DeepMind, a company that Facebook and others were rumored to be eyeing as well.

These additions focus on an area of artificial intelligence called “deep learning.” The concept of deep learning says machines and software can respond and evolve over time, essentially learning much as a human does.

Think of it as a bit like the digital equivalent of a newborn brain. The brain has some built-in programming, but more importantly it also has programming for how to learn and how to build on that learning.

The happy face take on this trend of consumer devices + machine intelligence is these products can make our lives easier and give us new levels of convenience and control and flexibility.

The scary frowny face says it sets us all up for a total invasion of privacy that dehumanizes us and turns us into sellable objects.

Or, as one joke making its way through the ether goes …

    Q: How do you know your house is on fire?

    A: Your Google Nest starts sending you ads for temporary lodging and construction quotes!

Now to be fair, you can use a Nest device without connecting it to any network at all. Of course, that makes it a pretty expensive smoke detector at $129, but if it cured that awful beeping, screaming, buzzing experience, maybe I should give it a try.

But should I? Should I risk letting the GooglePlex into my life, even after I largely lopped it out two years ago (http://www.capeeyes.com/2012/03/396/) when its new privacy (not!) policy went into effect.

Smart homes = snooping devices = loss of privacy vs. Chirp. Chirp. Chirp. Screech. Screech. What to do, what to do?

Well, let me at least take a look at what the Amazon community and its hundreds of reviews from people who share my smoke alarm pain have said in the past 60 days…

Doug posts:

    After two weeks of using the Protect, just before bed when the system did its nightly self-check, I heard a voice that said something to the extent that the unit had failed …. It’s pretty easy to silence a false alarm, but the chirp because of a failed device cannot be silenced.

Hmmm.

Matt writes:

    I have NO idea what went wrong, but … there’s absolutely no way to silence this alarm when it decides not to let you. I wrote to Nest customer support to explain the ordeal, and I haven’t heard back from them…

And then, from Wade, who sums it all up:

    Wait a generation to buy this product.

I think Wade got right to the heart of the question. We know we can make smart devices and software but we’re in the very early stages of making it work outside a lab – and that includes not only the technology, but also the social implications.

And, intentional or not, there will be social implications.

We are inherent tinkerers. It appears to be baked into our very souls. Sometimes, wearing my science fiction hat, I can’t help but wonder if we ourselves are not machines created by someone and dropped down here within a set of programming that defines us, a set of rules that even include a bit of code directing us to loop until we solve a problem.

Wow, maybe something even more disconcerting is happening. Maybe we are preprogrammed not only to reproduce ourselves but also to reproduce our next steps in the evolutionary process of machine intelligence!

(Cue spooky Twilight Zone music!)

Seriously, though, what we’re creating is an extension of ourselves. Whether that creates comfort and convenience or intrusive evilness remains to be seen.

As for Google? I think it just likes to get as much raw talent packed under its roof as possible, and let human endeavor evolve from there

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