What happens when our smart homes get smarter than us

What happens when you your connected microwave has access to your personal health data? It might just refuse to make you popcorn. Futurist Amy Webb weighs in on one possible future for the smart home: when it decides it's smarter than you are.

It could make decisions for you that you really won't like

The smart home of the future might exert a lot more control over your life. (Adam Killick/CBC)

Many of us probably think smart appliances are kind of nifty.

Who wouldn't want a thermostat that automatically adjusts the warmth of your home as soon as you walk in the door? And it's pretty cool to be able to just "ask" Alexa for the weather forecast or what's in your calendar for the day.

More and more people are buying interactive speakers for their home. According to Adobe Analytics, 32 per cent of American homes feature some sort of smart speaker.

But there's a dark side to the smart home, says Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

Amy Webb (Mary Gardella)

"We don't always know what data they're collecting, who that data is being shared with, and ultimately, down the road, how that information could be used against us in ways that make us uncomfortable," she told Spark host Nora Young.

All that data our smart homes are collecting could mean that one day in the near future, our homes could become smarter than us.

For example, smart speakers might be able to detect whether you're depressed from the tone of your voice. They could recognize other people in the room—and then match all the data they've gathered about you with other information stored online.

"This isn't a singular speaker," Webb said. "This is a vast network being powered by fairly sophisticated technological systems, and that individual smart speaker is just one container for those systems."

Those systems are developed and owned by a relatively small number of companies. In North America, this usually means Amazon, Google or Apple.

The unintended consequences of smart homes

This week, Amazon announced an initiative that will allow Alexa users to access their health data at certain hospitals get prescription information.

So how might this play out? As these companies have access to health data, the AIs that power the devices could be able to correlate that data with your activities.

Algorithms aren't good with flexibility.- Amy Webb, Founder of the Future Today Institute

This brings tremendous promise in terms of developing personalized medicine, Webb said. But it could also mean that, in the near future, your smart garage door will refuse to open as a way of forcing you to walk instead of drive. A smart microwave might refuse to cook unhealthy food.

Webb stressed that she doesn't think the big tech companies are out to turn your smart home into a prison, but that it could be an unintended consequence of machine logic.

"We don't have guardrails on how some of the data can be used and under what circumstances," she said.

"Algorithms aren't good with flexibility," she added, noting, for example, that her smartphone doesn't know she has a broken foot, and keeps telling her she hasn't met her required number of steps for the day.

In order to prevent our homes from acting like benevolent dictators, Webb said that tech firms need to take a step back. Rather than rushing forward with an eye only to optimizing short-term profit, they should be more transparent and up-front about the projects they're working on.

This would allow better collaboration with government, and prevent over-regulation and reactionary legislation, she said.

"We have to shift our thinking."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.