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The future of smart homes belongs to AI

Home automation is the future, a home that cannot anticipate your needs, that doesn’t know what it’s occupants need at any point in time and act automatically to meet those needs, is not a home worth living in. Everyone who has seen Iron Man is familiar with J.A.R.V.I.S the ever present electronic butler for lack of a better description, J.A.R.V.I.S is so much more than simply an automation system, he is an artificial intelligence that interacts with and anticipates everything that Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) needs both in an out of the home. He represents the holy grail of smart home manufacturers the world over, and it really isn’t all that far from becoming a reality.

Disclaimer

I worked at Control4, a leading home automation manufacturer, for 6 years as the Technical Support Supervisor for the EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) region.

In addition I have a very comprehensive smart home system powered by Control4 that I personally programmed and installed (with the help of a qualified electrician).

Considering my experience both professionally and personally I feel I am very well qualified to express an informed and considered opinion on this subject, however you should note that this is my opinion alone and not that of my former employer. In fact I suspect my former employer will strongly disagree with what I am about to write.

The current state of smart homes

If you want a smart home today there are a few options, to do it properly what you need to do is enlist the help of a “custom installer” who will professionally install a system such as Control4, Crestron, or AMX (now owned by Harmon).

A smart home system today typically consists of a controller of some description, various interfaces such as touch panels and remotes, devices to control such as audio/visual equipment and lighting, and sensor inputs. The more extensive the control options coupled with more extensive sensor options, the smarter your home can appear.

In the case of Control4 the main controller holds what they call a project, this projects contains the details of everything the system can sense and control.

Composer 1.8.1 Screenshot

The Control4 system can be programmed in an endless number of ways to react to inputs, i.e. input - process - output. Here are some examples of how Control4 reacts to inputs in my house.

  • In the night time I get out of bed to go to the bathroom. The Control4 system senses me get out of bed through a series of motion detectors and turns on the lights on the landing just a tiny amount so I can see without being dazzled. When I walk into the bathroom it does the same there, but does not turn on the extractor fan because it knows that it’s night time and doesn’t want to wake the house.

  • The Control4 system is aware of the state of the heating and the doors and windows of the house. If a door is left open for an extended period of time, the heating is turned off to save trying to heat the whole street. Once the door closes the Control4 system waits for a few moments to ensure the door really is staying shut, and then turns the heating back on.

  • The house is constantly monitoring air quality, if the humidity in the house is getting quite high then it can automatically activate air extraction to bring the humidity level back down to comfortable and healthy levels.

As you can see from the examples the scope of automation is extensive, almost endless. Almost any input you can imagine can be catered for with the installation of appropriate sensors, and any reaction to that input can be accomplished with the right array of control options. If you want it to play Disco Inferno by The Trammps (YouTube) every time the kitchen smoke detector is triggered, you can do! (In fact I may well add that to my house!)

Is an automated home a smart home?

To quote an earlier sentence of this blog:

The more extensive the control options coupled with more extensive sensor options, the smarter your home can appear.

The key word there is “appear”. When programming an automation system such as Control4, the programmer must anticipate every possible combination of events to ensure that the actions of the automation system are what the home owner would expect.

It is not enough to programme an outside light to come on after sunset and off after sunrise, what if there is an eclipse? Or perhaps there is a particular cloudy day that would benefit from some illumination? The programmer must allow for those events, think of every possible combination of events to ensure the house reacts appropriately and has appropriate sensors to sense those events.

With a modern home automation system, the system is not really demonstrating how smart it is, it is demonstrating how smart the programmer is to think of all those scenarios and allow for them in how they set the system up. It isn’t a smart home, the home isn’t anticipating or learning, it is simply reacting in rigid pre-programmed ways to specific stimulus. Input, process, output. The home automation is not learning from what events have occurred in the past to form a better reaction to those events in the future, it simply reacts in the way it was programmed.

If the home owner always overrides the brightness level of the lights when having a shower in the morning, maybe the house should learn that is how the lights should be when that person is showering and do that automatically in the future.

A home automation system such as Control4, Crestron, or AMX is not smart, it is automatic. Having an automated home is fantastic and I personally would not live without my Control4 system. But, for a home to be smart it must learn, anticipate, and adapt it’s programming to the benefit of the occupants of the home.

What does the future hold for smart homes?

Really there are two giants shifts in the industry that will bring about the change to not only make homes smart, but make them accessible to all.

  1. The demise of the custom installer and their industry.
  2. The rise of artificial intelligence.

The demise of the custom install industry.

Every high tech industry starts by requiring that technology to be installed by professionals. In the 1950s having a computer installed to do something as simple as process payroll was a massive undertaking requiring the input of countless specialists to build that system.

Computer delivery in Norwich (1957)

Here is a photo of a computer being delivered to Norwich city council in 1957. That machine took a year to build at great expense, and it does precisely the job it was programmed to do, payroll and council tax rates. It couldn’t do anything else, it was hard programmed to do specific tasks and nothing else.

Just like mainframes of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s needed professional installers and deep pockets full of money, home automation systems today need professional installers and deep pockets. However, just like expensive custom mainframes were replaced with general purpose cheap desktop computers that anyone can setup, so will home automation be replaced by easy to install and setup home automation systems. In fact, it has already begun.

In the UK you most likely will be offered a free smart thermostat by your energy provider at some point, these smart thermostats can learn about your heating habits and intelligently adapt to your needs. No programmer required. And it probably has a smart phone application as well.

You can pop down to Argos (a popular UK store) and buy yourself a Phillips Hue lightbulb, or pop next door to Screwfix (a hardware store) and buy a whole collection of Lightwave smart light switches, keypads, and sensors. All of which are inexpensive, can be self installed, and have smart phone applications.

In fact with a quick trip down the high street on a Saturday morning you could very easily automate every light in your home, every radiator, your boiler and hot water, and your intruder alarm and finish the weekend with a home entirely controllable from your smart phone. And you didn’t pay a single professional as not one of those things requires a plumber or electrician so long as you are reasonably comfortable with DIY.

But, that isn’t a smart home, it’s just a clever home, probably not as clever as a Control4 or Crestron system even. But it did cost you a fraction of the cost and the next step to make it smart is just around the corner.

Enter Siri, Cortana, and Alexa

The first problem of the cost of installing has been solved already, the products exist and are inexpensive and easy to install. And where solutions don’t already exist, more are coming. But what about being able to make it automated, perhaps even “smart”? Enter your favourite smart home AI companion.

With all these products available today having smart phone applications, your smart phone is not any different to a £1,000+ touch panel from someone like Control4. It can control everything in your home, and it probably does it a lot better and a lot faster than the Control4 touch panel and for a fraction of the cost with no professional installer in sight. And with all these smart phone apps all it really needs is for a little bit of smarts on the phone to link them all together.

Apple in particular have already taken steps in the right direction. With their HomeKit framework they make it possible for certified devices and their companion apps to all talk to each other and interact. Even better with HomeKit a smart phone owner can use Siri to control their devices with natural speech, even when out of the house. What Apple have done is made it so that with zero effort at all from the home owner the apps for all the devices they already own can already talk to each other. Couple this with Apple’s experience in audio (Especially with the launch of Apple Music) and their growing strength in video with the new Apple TV they have everything that is needed to build, almost by accident, a very compelling smart home experience.

It stands to reason that Microsoft, Google, and Amazon will launch their own similar solutions. One can only hope that an element of interoperability is achieved to avoid all the manufacturers having to repeat the same work for each type of integration.

Amazon Echo with Alexa assistant

Amazon especially is an interesting case as they have their new Alexa virtual assistant that sits in your home ready to assist you by answering questions, giving reminders, and of course doing your shopping. If that could be married up to a smart home solution like HomeKit then there is an exceptionally compelling experience there.

Anticipation and learning

The final piece of the puzzle is what will take it from a collection of clever apps and voice control and make it into a smart home; anticipation and learning. With Siri (or Alexa, Cortana, or Google Now) that step is a lot closer than you might think.

With the latest version of iOS Apple introduced Siri suggestions, what iOS, or rather Siri, does is learn your habits and make suggestions on the search screen or the phone lock screen based on past behaviour. For example if you often call your wife on the way home from work then the phone might make the suggestion to call her when you get into your car around 5pm. Or if you watch Netflix every night in bed then it might suggest the Netflix app on the lock screen when you plug your headphones in at night time. If the phone is able to anticipate your needs, it is only a small leap to extend that ability to anticipate what lights you might want to be on, or when you leave work and need the heating turning on.

The future of the smart home

The smart phone of your average home owner has every component it needs to make a home smart, it just needs those final pieces of the puzzle putting into place to complete the experience. The smart phone or tablet has the apps to control your home, it has the framework to control those apps in a unified way, and soon it will have the intelligence to make your home truly smart. And when those pieces are put in place, the likes of Control4 and Crestron have only a limited amount of time left before they slip into irrelevance.

In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s there was a very real need for specialist manufacturers of computer systems that are designed complete specific tasks, custom installations so to speak. But with the advent of the desktop computer and modern operating systems it became unnecessary, you might have needed a specialist machine to do payroll in 1950s Norwich, but in 2016 Norwich a desktop computer can do it and the user can install the software themselves. In much the same way there was a need for smart home installers of systems like Control4, but that won’t be the case for long. With the advent of truly intelligent virtual assistants like Siri who can control your home for you, and apps you download yourself onto the phone or tablet you already own, the custom installer just isn’t needed anymore.

Of course there will always be a need for building automation systems, much like there is still a need for specialist computer systems in banks and data centres, but the custom automation system will be relegated to hotels, hospitals, and commercial buildings. The smart home will soon be the realm of the AI.