Your smart home is trying to reprogram you. It’s failing

A smart thermostat made by Nest, which Google bought in 2014. Image: Getty.

A father finds out his daughter is pregnant after algorithms identify tell-tale patterns in the family’s store card data. Police charge suspects in two separate murder cases based on evidence taken from a Fitbit tracker and a smart water meter. A man sues Uber for revealing his affair to his wife.

Stories such as these have been appearing in ever greater numbers recently, as the technologies involved become ever more integrated into our lives. They form part of the Internet of Things (IoT), the embedding of sensors and internet connections into the fabric of the world around us. Over the last year, these technologies, led by Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home, have begun to make their presence felt in our domestic lives, in the form of smart home devices that allow us to control everything in the house just by speaking.

We might look at stories like those above as isolated technical errors, or fortuitous occurrences serving up justice. But behind them, something much bigger is going on: the development of an entire class of technologies seeking to remake the fundamentals of our everyday lives.

Breaking the social order

These technologies want to be ubiquitous, seamlessly spanning the physical and virtual worlds, and awarding us frictionless control over all of it. The smart home promises a future in which largely hidden tech provides us with services before we’ve even realised we want them, using sensors to understand the world around us and navigate it on our behalf. It’s a promise of near limitless reach, and effortless convenience.

It’s also completely incompatible with social realities. The problem is, our lives are full of limits, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the family home, which many of these technologies target. From the inside, these places often feel all too chaotic but they’re actually highly ordered. This a world full of boundaries and hierarchies: who gets allowed into which rooms, who gets the TV remote, who secrets are shared with, who they are hidden from.

Much of this is mundane, but if you want to see how important these kind of systems of order are to us, consider the “breaching experiments” of sociologist Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s. Garfinkel set out to deliberately break the rules behind social order in order to reveal them. Conducting the most humdrum interaction in the wrong way was shown to elicit reactions in others that ranged from distress to outright violence. You can try this yourself. When sat round the dinner table try acting entirely normal save for humming loudly every time someone starts speaking, and see how long it is before someone loses their temper.

The technologies of the smart home challenge our orderings in countless small ways. A primary limitation is their inability to recognise boundaries we take for granted. I had my own such experience a week ago while sitting in my front room. With the accidental slip of a finger I streamed a (really rather sweary) YouTube video from my phone onto my neighbour’s TV, much to the surprise of their four-year-old daughter in the middle of watching Paw Patrol.

A finger press was literally all it took, of a button that can’t be disabled. That, and the fact that I have their Wi-Fi password on my phone as I babysit for them from time to time. To current smart home technology, those who share Wi-Fi networks share everything.

Of course, we do still have passwords to at least offer some crude boundaries. And yet smart home technologies excel at creating data that doesn’t fit into the neat, personalised boxes offered by consumer technologies. This interpersonal data concerns groups, not individuals, and smart technologies are currently very stupid when it comes to managing it. Sometimes this manifests itself in humorous ways, like parents finding “big farts” added to their Alexa-generated shopping list. Other times it’s far more consequential, as in the pregnant daughter story above.

In our own research into this phenomena, my colleagues and I have discovered an additional problem. Often, this tech makes mistakes, and if it does so with the wrong piece of data in the wrong context, the results could be disastrous. In one study we carried out, a wife ended up being informed by a digital assistant that her husband had spent his entire work day at a hotel in town. All that had really happened was an algorithm had misinterpreted a dropped GPS signal, but in a relationship with low trust, a suggestion of this kind could be grounds for divorce.


Rejecting the recode

These technologies are, largely unwittingly, attempting to recode some of the most basic patterns of our everyday lives, namely how we live alongside those we are most intimate with. As such, their placement in our homes as consumer products constitute a vast social experiment. If the experience of using them is too challenging to our existing orderings, the likelihood is we will simply come to reject them.

This is what happened with Google Glass, the smart glasses with a camera and heads-up-display built into them. It was just too open to transgressions of our notions of proper behaviour. This discomfort even spawned the pejorative “Glasshole” to describe its users.

Undoubtedly, the tech giants selling these products will continue to tweak them in the hope of avoiding similar outcomes. Yet a fundamental challenge remains: how can technologies that sell themselves on convenience be taught the complexities and nuances of our private worlds? Or rather: how can they do so without needing us to constantly hand-hold them, entirely negating their aim of making our lives easier?

The ConversationTheir current approach – to ride roughshod over the social terrain of the home – is not a sustainable approach. Unless and until the day we have AI systems capable of comprehending human social worlds, it may be that the smart home promised to us ends up being a lot more limited than its backers imagine.

Right now, if you’re taking part in this experiment, the advice must be to proceed with caution – because when it comes to social relationships, the smart home remains pretty dumb.

Oh, and be very careful not to stream things to your neighbour’s TV.

Murray Goulden is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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