The iHome expected to be Apple's answer to HAL 9000: Don Pittis

The wired-up computerized home of the future envisioned in 2001: A Space Odyssey is soon to arrive, but it's nowhere near as scary, Don Pittis writes.

Apple in race with Google to link you to your fridge and your thermostat

The computerized futuristic world envisioned in 2001: A Space Odyssey is about to arrive, Don Pittis writes. (Duk Han Lee/CBC)

"This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it," says the talking computer in the movie 2001 to the only human he hasn't bumped off yet.

Anyone who has watched that 1968 science fiction flick might not be too pleased with the idea of accommodation that talks back, but next Monday could be the day the Jetson-style talking house moves from the unlikely to the inevitable.

The talking computer's name, HAL, is constructed of the three letters that precede IBM in the alphabet. But the way it looks now, it won't be IBM, but Apple or Google that will be in the race to create the talking, thinking house.

According to a report in the London Financial Times, Apple's next Worldwide Developer Conference, which starts June 2, be will be the moment the company that brought us consumer- friendly devices like the iPod, iPhone and iPad will unveil its plan for the iHome. The name has not been announced yet, but it seems a good guess. Google has already signalled its interest, paying a cool $3 billion for Nest, a maker of centrally controlled home devices. 

The richest man in the world, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, was famous for having a computerized house that responded to his every whim. But in its next iteration, experts say, the talking house will not be just for the very rich. 

"This is really a hobbyist market today," tech analyst Jan Dawson tells Tim Bradshaw at the Financial Times.

Dawson says Apple, with its experience selling well-designed mass-appeal gizmos, could be just the company to make the talking house popular.

Blind in a sighted world

It's an idea that Debbie Gillespie likes. Blind from just after birth, Gillespie is the CNIB's expert in Braille, but she keeps abreast of the latest ways for the visually impaired to make their way in a sighted world.     

She already uses Apple's VoiceOver to "read" emails and articles. But while she tries Apple's voice program Siri for occasional searches, Gillespie finds that keyboards are still more reliable for writing.  

"We're almost at the level where you can have a regular conversation with a device," she says.

"I see voice, two-way, live, as becoming very common in the next five years not only for people who have vision loss," says Gillespie. "Home security is a great place [to use it]. Walk into a room and say 'lights on.' Or you tell your oven to turn on at 3 o'clock and set for 350."

Nearly 2,000 experts polled by the U.S. think-tank Pew Research agree. A report titled The Internet of Things will Thrive by 2025 says talking houses are just one way that we will be connected to the inanimate world. 

"Computation capabilities have been growing, and accelerating research into human-computer interfaces and the development of human-like artificial intelligence are expected by many experts to advance communications capabilities over the next decade," says Pew Research. 

"There are a variety of ways that the internet of things will show up in people's lives," said the report's author, Lee Rainie in a recent interview. "We will wear connected devices. Our clothes and our pieces of jewelry are going to be giving information about us and trying to be responsive to us, our homes are going to be a lot more connected."

Consumer battleground

Individual devices like those produced by Nest are already on the market. There are already connected refrigerators, thermostats, lights and household music systems. The battleground for consumer giants like Apple and Google and Samsung will be to create the central hub or "platform" that will be the connecting point for a house full of devices, making them all work together smoothly.

Also at stake will be the competition for the communication tool to link you to the platform, whether iPhone, Google Glass or the Samsung Smart Watch.

But with all that information rattling around from house to smart watch to thermostat, not all the experts Pew heard from think it's a good idea to share our personal information so promiscuously.

"Topmost in people's minds is privacy." says Rainie. "All these systems will be getting readings from us, will be capturing data from us, will be putting together material profiling us using algorithms to anticipate our needs."  

Avner Levin, director of Ryerson's Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute, says that's dangerous. With almost Weekly reports of data theft from giant corporate computer systems, and news about the NSA listening in to private conversations, Levin's view does not seem crazy.

What about privacy?

"We're not concerned just about governments," Levin told Anna Maria Tremonti on CBC's The Current earlier this year. "We're concerned about criminal elements. And we're concerned from a privacy perspective about where the information goes. Does it go to... my employer? ... to my insurance company?" 

Gerald Penn is a scientist at the University of Toronto who has been working on computer speech for years. He says the science is moving so quickly he can hardly keep up with his graduate students. And he thinks devices that really talk are on their way. But the question remains, will we want to talk to them?

"It used to be that speech engineers used to think that if we could just get this thing working everyone will start using it without really any careful consideration of why someone would want to speak to a toaster," says Penn.

And if you do decide to try out the Smart Home, and then if you change your mind and decide you don't want Hal the House knowing all your secrets? Will he let you turn him off?

Don Pittis is on Twitter @don_pittis.

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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