I'm Smart — Should My House Be, Too?

illustration by Maggie Dybas

Twenty percent of U.S. households will have smart technology by 2022, according to Forrester Research. From smart light systems to voice-activated ones like Amazon Alexa and Google Home, smart technology is rapidly becoming a part of many people’s lives.

Smart technology — according to Miguel Cardona, an assistant professor in New Media Design and Visual Communications Design — is any kind of technology that can augment your abilities and help you accomplish everyday tasks.

“The idea is that it kind of helps you live your life,” Cardona said.

Convenience Factors

Strategically placed around Cardona’s home are smart buttons he can use to control his lights. Each light in his house is also connected to his phone and watch. His phone knows when he's close to his home, and can then control the lights accordingly.

“The best benefit is when I get home, my lights are on,” Cardona said. “It’s one less thing on my cognitive load, and that to me is important because it brings peace of mind.”

“The best benefit is when I get home, my lights are on.”

On the other hand, sixth year Mechanical Engineering Technology and Mechanical Manufacturing Systems Integrations dual degree student John Chambers said he'd be hesitant to have these devices in his future home.

Per the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, smart technology can lower utility bills, lower waste and optimize home energy use. Despite the end product's energy-saving benefits, however, Chambers argued that energy is still used to produce these smart devices.

“Essentially the only thing it does is, if you forget to turn off lights as you leave, [it does it for you],” Chambers said. “It’s a question of: Do you want the device to be smart or do you want to be smart and learn to turn off the lights when you leave your house?”

"Do you want the device to be smart or do you want to be smart and learn to turn off the lights when you leave your house?"

The constant connectivity to our homes can be a blessing, but also a curse.

Constant Notifications

Smart technology makes it easy to be constantly connected to our devices — even on vacation. The average American checks their phone 80 times per day when traveling, according to Asurion. This is partly due to smart devices sending constant notifications, such as who's at the front door.

Cardona has a front door camera at his home. Any time there is activity, he gets a notification on his watch. He believes that sometimes he gets notified simply to remind him the technology exists — even if there's no activity — since companies don’t want you to “set it and forget it.” Despite the notifications, Cardona appreciates the sense of calm he gets knowing all is well at home.

But with the amount of notifications coming through, Chambers said a disadvantage to smart technology is it “lends itself to a higher level of reliance.”

“There are all of these things you have to worry about, and smart technology winds up bringing all those things [together],” he said.

Both Cardona and Chambers mindfully manage their notifications, allowing the useful ones and silencing the others.

“The way we approach smart technology needs to be flipped ... we’re giving everything else access to us, rather than giving ourselves access to it,” Chambers said.

By modifying notification settings, you can specify when you interact with products. There is a responsibility between the product users and designers, and Cardona said companies need to make it easier for users to control those settings.

“We kind of ‘hire’ these products to do things for us. Yet, their defaults are such that they want us to constantly use them,” Cardona said.

Cardona and Chambers also believe companies need to be more transparent with users’ private data.

Privacy Concerns

The market is booming and competition to get smart products out while they're in demand is intense. Due to this, security features could end up a lower priority, according to a New York Times interview with Charles Henderson, head of a professional hacking team at IBM Security.

Home devices such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home continuously collect our data while listening for their “wake phrase.” Companies say they use recorded data to improve the technology and user experiences.

“There’s always a challenge in terms of ethics, because you have all this information going back and forth.” Cardona asked, “How are you [the company] doing things responsibly for the user? How are you making sure the user is aware of the security concerns around this type of product?”

There also exists the threat of hackers breaking into your personal devices. Smart TVs and home cameras can be hacked, though it might not be as easy as one would think, Chambers said. Given time and access, someone could break into your home electronically. But they could also do the same thing mechanically.

“The common criminal does not have such high-level access to different technologies. And [it takes] time and investment to figure out how to do that [hack in] to someone’s home, 'cause it’s not just an easy access," Chambers said. "You [can't] walk up to the door and hit a car keychain and — dink! — grant yourself access.”

What to Consider

There are many factors to evaluate when investing in smart technology. Chambers warns that people could end up relying too much on the simple interaction smart technology provides. Eventually, people might not know how to proceed with a task or fix the device if it malfunctions.

Cardona suggests considering the company you are purchasing from and how invested in your privacy they are. If one has concerns about privacy, smart technology might not be for them. On the other hand, smart technology has the potential to add a new level of ease to your life.

“What if the spice rack told you how best to store your spices?” Cardona asked. “What if [you could alert the shower] as to your intention to take a shower and it would prepare the water for you?"

Ultimately, whether you choose to deck your home out with smart technology or keep to just a smartphone is up to you.

“You have this technology, but fundamentally, what is it trying to solve?" Cardona questioned. "Is it taking away from your cognitive load, or is it adding to your cognitive load?”