Who Needs Technology? A 5-Part Series
Part 1: AI at Home

Smart Homes, 2021: Technology to Die For

The Family Hub smart refrigerator is one of Samsung’s bestsellers for 2021. If you’re the proud owner of this smart fridge, you can view its contents on your smartphone, from work, say. It’s how you’ll know to trash the doggie bag with the fish tacos that expired last week. It’s also how you’ll know what to make with those gorgeous strawberries you bought at the farm stand; your fridge, after all, connects to your phone’s meal-planning app.

But wait, there’s more. It’s not just about food. You can use your fridge’s jumbo touch screen, speakers, and voice assistant to control all the lights in your home. And the thermostat. And any other smart device, from your intercom to your digital assistant. Also, several apps connected to your fridge can order groceries and have them delivered before you pull into the driveway….

The smart fridge lets you see all your food inside, connect to the Internet, order what you miss, and get it delivered.

These days, many other companies are creating intelligent appliances, from smart vacuums to smart insulin pumps. In fact, Forrester Research predicts that, when it comes to AI devices like smart speakers, more than 66 million households in the US will be wired up by next year. This is an increase of around 40% from 2018.
Why is AI-everything so popular with consumers? Typical answer: convenience and speed.

But how did we get here?

Wall-to-wall (Artificial) Intelligence

The core of smart-home technology is the Internet of Things (IoT.) Smart devices include any electronics that connect to the Internet. Smart devices also connect with each other—using the Internet as a bridge.

Which of your devices already qualify as part of your connected home? Think of your smart meter; your home-entertainment set-up, voice-controlled by Alexa; and your alarm system, with its motion sensors and security cameras. Then there’s your free-range vacuum-cleaner, your clever convection oven—and the list goes on.

Here’s the kicker: once you add the AI component, your smart devices learn your behaviors and preferences, adapting, on their own, to your habits. Let’s look at an example. Say your smart alarm-clock rang an hour earlier than usual this morning. It was not by mistake: in fact you needed to wake up early, but you’re mystified by how it knew about your 6 a.m. appointment to drive Suzie to the airport. Here’s how your clock knows what it knows: it scans your agenda and adjusts it to keep you on time for everything, including your crack-of-dawn commitments. Your IoT system also synchs up with your espresso machine, ergo your macchiato at 6:05.

Thanks to your IoT system, the brilliant logistics continue throughout the day: when you return home, you find a bottle of cherry-flavored cough medicine (your favorite) on the kitchen table. WTF? Health sensors in your toothbrush had detected a cold coming on—and immediately placed the order at your local pharmacy, to be delivered by drone to your front door.

Everywhere in your home, devices connect and exchange information about you.

Smart Homes: So Where Does It Hurt?

This smart-home scenario may sound wonderful, but not everyone is buying into it. Dr. Elisa Costante, Vice President of Research at Forescout, a security firm, asserts that there are underreported risks associated with smart technology. In April of 2021, Dr. Costante and her team released a research report with astounding results: a new flaw in some IoT systems exposes around 100 million Internet-connected devices to the risk of being hacked. Dubbed Name:Wreck, this new vulnerability is in the code (also known as the TCP/IP stacks)—both proprietary and open source—that creates the connection between the devices and the Internet. The technical challenge, however, is to fix this vulnerability. So, what’s the problem? For starters, some of the TCP/IP code was written as long ago as 1983—an eternity in computer-science terms—when the Internet was still fledgling, and security issues looked nothing like today’s threats.

What, exactly, happens when Name:Wreck does its damage? Attackers take your device offline or take control of your device remotely. Here are two recent examples: In 2018, a Las Vegas casino was hacked via its Internet-connected fish-tank’s thermometer. Another disaster: at an oil-and-gas facility—owned by an undisclosed company, at an undisclosed location—two high-tech exercise bicycles (like Pelotons) were also communicating via the Internet. What could possibly go wrong? As it happened, the so-called exercise bikes provided predatory hackers with ransom-able corporate data, unbeknownst to anyone within the company. Again, Name:Wreck was the culprit.

Dr. Costante presents IoT security at the Black Hat session of the 2018 Secura security conference in The Netherlands

So, where else does it hurt with smart-home technology? In a word, privacy. This is what everyone’s talking about, the issue on the front page of every news outlet from the front page of the New York Times to the lead story on AlJazeera.com. There’s plenty of info afoot on how our refrigerators are “listening” to—and storing—our most intimate conversations. (And you thought that jammed icemaker was your biggest domestic problem….)

Thinking Outside the Icebox

As a society, our craving for smart devices goes far beyond home appliances. To meet our insatiable demand, companies large and small are pushing to market innovative IoT and AI-enabled devices. Apparently, we need the soles of our shoes to feel around for (i.e., “detect”) a possible chronic illness. This may just be another WTF moment: “smart” soles measure cadence, speed, impact force, and other metrics, as you walk. Why depend on smart soles instead of an annual check-up with your internist? For good reason: technologies like smart soles place personal health in our own hands—or our feet, as it were.

But smart-sole buyers beware: as with any technology, you’re always walking a fine line between next-level convenience—and leaving your digital footprint absolutely everywhere you go.