AI and smart homes: We may not notice the future

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Jetsons are not walking through your front door anytime soon. Or perhaps they’re already here and you don’t remember life without them. That’s the way technology blends into our lives, often without a formal invitation. The security industry knows this.

Industry experts interviewed by Security Systems News agree that most of us take for granted the ways in which artificial intelligence has changed our lives at home. They don’t necessarily agree on the speed of change over the last five to 20 years, or whether we are going to notice future changes that now seem Jetson-like. They do seem to agree that while AI, machine learning and data analytics have presented fascinating potential for many years, progress is always subjected to market realities and human foibles.

“We are at a crazy tipping point,” said Jeremy Warren, chief technology officer at Vivint Inc., a private smart home security provider, based in Provo, Utah, with more than one million customers in the U.S. and Canada.

“AI hasn’t really fulfilled its promise,” Warren said. Despite “so much” research and development since the middle of the 20th century, he said, expectations may have exceeded practical application by a considerable margin.

“The potential of connected home technology is virtually limitless,” said Sridhar Solur, senior vice president of product and development for Xfinity Homes and Data Services. “When you reflect on how far we’ve come in an incredibly short time, it becomes clear that the only real limit on connected home experiences is our own imaginations. [A] factor will really be whether people want to have their homes do ‘everything’ for them.”

Gadgets are great, but a machine’s ability “to solve problems that are easy for people to solve” is not what pioneers had imagined, and not what dreamers are still envisioning, Warren said.

“We may have underestimated the difficulty and overestimated the speed—although not the potential—of moving from the laboratory to the consumer … progress cannot be measured on a weekly basis,” he said.

While service providers, installers and integrators can alert end users about the potential for AI in their homes, consumers still determine what they want versus what they need.

“My mother is not going to open a phone, find the app, retrieve the password and complete one or two other steps” in order to activate an AI smart home service, Warren said. “That’s a technology-enthusiast habit, and even they are getting sick of it. You can’t make 80 percent market penetration unless you can bring value to my mom.”

“If this stuff works really well, it’s invisible,” said Jeff Bedell, chief strategy and innovations officer at Alarm.com, based in Vienna, Va. The company provides cloud-based services for remote control, home automation and monitoring.

“Our goal is to transition from a world in which connected home tasks are being performed by you to one in which those tasks are performed for you in a way that is intuitive and effortless,” said Solour.

“There is a lot of hype” surrounding AI, machine learning, data analytics and the smart home, Bedell said.

Customer wants and needs do not always comply with virtual blueprints for smart homes. “There are a lot of providers who cater to that ‘cool use’ factor,” Bedell said. “We get it. Safeguards are not as sexy as the Jetsons.”

The security industry is currently “dealing with this idea that we can have a crazy amount of control” over our home conveniences, whether they are useful or not, Bedell said.

Security experts have always known that potential end users are not always ready for what is available to make their homes more secure. That dynamic often emerges from discomfort with what is new and unknown. Brad Russell, a research analyst at Parks Associates, based in Addison, Texas, describes that discomfort as “friction”—and he suggests that it has been around longer than we realize. Parks Associates is a market research company specializing in emerging consumer technology.

“New technology always comes with friction,” said Russell. From his perspective, however, the security industry has seen “a reduction in friction between technology and usage.”

The gap closes, he said, “If I can just call [my device] rather than use three or four buttons … now you’ve got the ‘wow and delight’ factor. It sounds cliché but it’s true—fun, easy, convenient.”

Bells and whistles aside, the most pragmatic smart homes appear to be the ones that address two issues: aging in place and detection of anomalies in human movement inside and outside the home. The former has become a prominent social issue, while the latter has always been a private matter.

According to Bedell, Alarm.com developed applications for AI in the home as a result of its attempts to address the security needs of customers who are either elderly or who have elderly relatives living at home

“Our insights were borne out of our wellness operations,” Bedell said. “You can use this [technology] for aging in place—not just to catch people breaking into the house, but to [track] people inside the house.”

“The guts of it is exactly the same as in security solutions,” he said.

The “guts” are algorithms and machine learning used to notify homeowners of an aberration in human activity inside their walls.

The good news, according to Jeremy Warren, is that “video analytics are here and getting better.”

“Better data, and better data analytics absolutely leads to better customer services,” said Sridhar Solur.

“We can offer real world value,” Warren said. “When you want to know who is at home, whose car or truck is pulling up to the house, whether it’s the school bus … we can really start solving these kinds of problems” by detecting patterns through AI and data analytics.

“You don’t need to spy on people,” he said. “The analytics answer a basic question: ‘Is the level of activity the same for my mom today as it normally is?’”

Voice-enabled video search qualifies as the most interesting recent development in the smart home, according to Russell. Ask your device to show clips of someone wearing a white hat, or of your children coming home from school. Home security systems can also create alerts for disruptions “in patterns of behavior that systems recognize.” Russell noted, pointing out that the system knows, for example, that “at 1 a.m., everyone is in bed” and can alert you otherwise without a prompt.

And then there are intelligence alerts, increasingly more valuable in the age of telephone and online scams targeting the elderly.

“Rather than … people invading your house, people can invade through cyberspace,” Russell said. “It can be more dangerous than entering through your physical front door.”

As Bedell suggested, AI in the smart home is not as sexy as living the life of the Jetsons. Saving lives and providing safety may not work that way.

“How sci-fi it is … look at cars of the 1970s,” Bedell said. “Think of the sensors then and compare it to today. The car may be ahead of the home, but the car is manufactured, the home is not.”

“When it comes to AI, consumers don’t know that to think—‘Are the robots taking over?’” said Russell.

Humans are still providing the real intelligence for smart home evolution. And it’s not just the humans pining for more gadgets.

“It’s not just about what automation can do for the customer, it’s also about what it can do for service providers,” said Bedell. “It’s about whether we can make service providers more efficient. The patterns of our service providers correlate with certain [end users]. … We take a lot of time thinking about this.”