As someone who researched and developed some early conversational agents back in the 1990s, I am still fascinated by artificially intelligent technology and excited by the plethora of gadgets now being marketed with artificial intelligence driving their systems and their user interfaces. But I admit, I am a bit disappointed by the development choices being made by some product manufacturers because they seem to be more interested in the appearance that their product lines are cutting edge because they possess some implementation of artificial intelligence rather than whether the product really solves a pressing human problem in that particular sphere.
For example, at CES 2018, Samsung showcased their Family Hub smart refrigerator. It is equipped with cameras and claims it can assess the contents of your refrigerator, recommend recipes, and even allow you to shop for groceries without leaving your kitchen. Sounds great doesn't it? But how realistic are these claims. If you have a lot of left overs do you have to use coded containers so the refrigerator can figure out what contents are within them? Can the cameras scan the contents of opaque packaging so the refrigerator can determine if you're getting low on a particular item? Or are most of these claims based merely on the refrigerator's new Bixby virtual assistant that you can tell to add milk to your shopping list or ask what recipe could use leftover ham, zucchini and eggplant?
|Samsung Family Hub refrigerator image courtesy of Samsung, Inc.|
The Samsung unit also has AKG premium quality sound speakers in the doors, a whiteboard for notes, and a built-in screen to view baby monitors, front doors, or status screens of other smart devices.
“The integration of Bixby and SmartThings into the Family Hub is bringing a new level of intelligent connectivity into the room where people spend the most time: the kitchen.” - Samsung corporation.
Perhaps this last statement by Samsung points to the crux of the problem. In our house, we are in the kitchen only about 30 minutes before a meal (prep) and 30 minutes after a meal (cleanup). Being retired we seldom have guests so the meal itself lasts about 15 - 20 minutes. (My husband was a Marine so you sit, eat, withdraw!) At present, I have a typical galley kitchen adjacent to a more spacious dining room. If there is any lingering it will take place in the dining room, not the kitchen.
I own a traditional side by side refrigerator/freezer and have an Amazon Echo Dot on the kitchen window sill. When I pour a glass of milk and notice I'm getting low on milk I just call out to Alexa to put milk on my shopping list. If I have leftover Polish sausage in the refrigerator I can ask Alexa for a recipe using Polish sausage. (If I had an Echo Show, she could show me a recipe that I could then refer to as I prepared the dish.) If I want music, I tell Alexa to play one of my Amazon Music playlists. If I still had kids at home and wanted to tell them to clean their rooms when they get home from school, I could set a repeating reminder at an appropriate time on the appropriate Echo device (Alexa reminders are location specific).
If I was still working, it might be helpful to take a peek into my refrigerator before I shop for groceries on the way home from work but my Alexa shopping list on my iPhone that tracks my supply needs throughout the week is much more comprehensive.
If the refrigerator's cameras are eventually paired with intelligent scanning capability so it could recognize food items and record the date they were placed in the refrigerator so it could advise you of the status of food freshness, then the jump in price might be truly worth it from a usefulness perspective but not with its current limited capabilities.
Luckily, there is another smart device headed for the market that may take care of this need, though. Ovie Smarterware produces food containers with smart trackers that indicate when the food in your fridge is on the verge of going bad. The trackers work with a variety of virtual assistants from Amazon, Google, and Apple. When you are putting new food items into these containers you tell your assistant to open the Ovie app then press the container's tracking button and say what is in the container such as "This is lasagne". Then as the lasagne ages in the refrigerator, the tracker color changes from green to yellow to red so a quick glance lets you know what food items need to be used up (or thrown out!).
In addition to containers, the company also makes bands and chip clips with trackers and is working with the FDA to develop an accurate database of food expiration periods. This product is obviously the result of a company truly attempting to solve a very big problem with technology. Americans throw away billions of pounds of food every year. However, whether consumers will be willing to invest in and make the effort to use this product regularly remains to be seen. If Ovie's marketing people can appeal to those of us conscientious enough to clean our recyclables and put them in appropriate containers for disposal maybe they can pull this off.
What about other smart kitchen appliances? Although it might sound great to have your virtual assistant brew a cup of coffee while you're getting dressed, the bottom line is someone must keep the coffeemaker topped off with water unless you plumb your coffeemaker with water and provide a smart tap that opens and closes to dispense the appropriate amount of water needed to fill the coffeemaker before the scheduler tells it to brew.
The same can be said for intelligent slow cookers.Someone must put ingredients in the slow cooker before you schedule it to come on at an appropriate time. Raw meat and some other ingredients also don't keep well for extended periods at room temperature. If a slow cooker could switch from chill to heat then scheduled to cook for the appropriate time based on when you wished the food to be ready, that would be a slow cooker that would get my attention.
Even all of the wonderful lighting products I've seen have limitations. Most of the smart wall switches currently on the market require a neutral wire that was not common in home wiring until 2011. The few switches that do not require a neutral wire usually require a hub in addition to the bulb so you end up paying more for them and have to configure yet another device to connect them. I have been able to use Wemo smart plugs to connect all of my living room lamps, though, and can easily turn them all on and off with a couple of words. Still I would like to integrate my overhead lights and porch lights into my voice-managed system.
But were there other devices clearly solving a human problem? Well, I think Kohler's smart bathtub would be a good choice. Running a bath does take time and having both the depth of the water and water temperature preset is particularly helpful for individuals who may have diminished sensory perception. Years ago my car heater malfunctioned on my way home in the middle of a blizzard. Although I tried to keep my hands warm by placing one and then the other under my armpit, by the time I got home 30 minutes later I could barely feel my hands and feet. I went into the bathroom to run a tub of warm water and couldn't feel if the water was hot or cold. Seniors, especially those suffering from neuropathy, would really benefit from this type of tub, besides the efficiency of having the tub run while you are doing something else. At present, though, I personally have no need to talk to my toilet or ask it to warm up the seat before I settle down onto it. So I would not consider spending extra money for that part of the smart bathroom.
Another gadget promoted at CES that could be useful, especially to seniors, is a pocket-sized LinkSquare spectrometer. This little device when paired with your smartphone captures how a substance's molecules vibrate, an optical fingerprint that reveals whether food is safe to consume or spoiled. In her later years, my mother's sense of smell diminished to the point where she could no longer tell if food had spoiled or not. This kind of device would have been very helpful to her. This gadget can also identify mislabeled and diluted liquor, detect counterfeit and mislabeled drugs, and detect counterfeit money, very helpful for those working as cashiers. I think the $299 price tag would need to come down substantially, though, before it would find its way into common use.
I'm already convinced smart TVs are truly helpful as well. In our house we have a large screen HD television in the living room connected to an Alexa-enabled DISH satellite receiver and a smaller HD TV in the dining room facing the dining table. I don't have to look for one of a handful of remotes to change channels or find a particular movie or television show as I have each TV controlled by their nearby Echo Dots. I use Wemo wifi-enabled smart plug between the TVs and the power outlets to remotely control the on/off switches. But, there are features could prove useful on a voice-enabled TV. I would really like to control the volume of my Polk sound bar in the living room remotely and be able to remotely change my video inputs so I could access my Roku and my Blu-Ray player without shuffling remotes, too. The newer Samsung smart TVs auto-detect devices attached to their HDMI outlets and allow you to control them accordingly. But, then I'd have to give up my 3D capability!
Although the voice features of my DISH Hopper 3 are really great I wish it could also let me join whatever program is in progress in the living room by letting me simply say something like "Join living room program" so my husband can easily continue watching in the dining room whatever he has been enjoying in the living room without me having to pick up the satellite remote for the dining room TV and selecting Options -> TV viewing -> Living Room, etc.
Voice enabling lights, locks, appliances and televisions can be incredibly convenient. But I hope you'll consider how useful the technology actually is before paying substantially more for whatever product you're considering.