'Conscious' Devices: Convenient or Creepy?


Why would Google spend $3.2 billion (that’s a lot of money, even for a tech giant) on a company that makes "smart" thermostats and smoke detectors?


Because that’s the direction the world is heading.

Elise Hu, author of a recent NPR piece on Google’s purchase of the home automation company Nest, told Fusion’s Alicia Menendez on Tuesday that there’s been an increase over the last few years in companies marketing "smart" devices.


What does it mean for a device to be smart?

In short, it means devices are connected to the Internet and "intelligent" in that, as Hu told Menendez, they "anticipate you." If your thermostat is connected to your smartphone, and it can learn over time when you typically arrive home and adjust the temperature based on what it learns, you no longer have to walk into a stifling house and manually roll down the temperature dial. You're also not wasting energy by programming it to come on at a set time every day if that doesn't work with your lifestyle.

It makes sense, Hu added, that such innovation is beginning around connected devices in the home, because it’s a place people spend much of their time and somewhere they want to be comfortable.

But there are a couple of complications.

According to Hu, no company has successfully figured out a framework that allows for seamless interaction between a bunch of connected devices.


"I think that the big question that they're trying to solve is frameworks," she told Menendez. "Right now, a lot of appliances exist and they’re smart appliances, except they don’t know how to talk to one another."

In other words, what if when your alarm went off in the morning, it notified your coffeemaker to start, and several minutes later, your coffeemaker told your shower to turn on and specified the exact temperature, and then your shower kick-started your towel warmer?


We’re not there yet.

"If you’re the connecting framework," Hu said, "you've sort of won the game, right? And so there's real competition going on on that front."


Another big question is privacy. As Hu noted in her article, potential consumers are worried about Google owning a company that makes products that rely on a lot of personal data. Nest has tried to allay those fears, but the idea has left some people reeling.

"[Nest is] saying they have a privacy policy that will prevent that but we'll see," Hu said. "Privacy policies can change."


Would you be concerned about having "smart" devices like the Nest thermostat in your home or is any privacy risk that might exist worth the convenience?

It’s a question likely to get a lot of play in the coming years as more and more smart devices enter our lives.


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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