In probably three to four years, mundane tasks like switching on your coffee machine or washing machine, filling your bathtub or even answering the door will be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI). This would mean you could get work done without even getting up from bed. But, is this exposing us to more risks?
Think about it. Once your coffeemaker is smart, it can make the exact amount of beverage at the same time every day. But what about days when you are fast asleep or not at home? Unless you shut off the system, the coffee machine will do its daily job as usual.
This coffee could boil over and spill down on the floor. Worse, there could be a child or a pet at home who could accidentally be injured by this automatic functioning.
The new AI systems resemble the ‘smart home’ portrayed in the 1950 short story ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ by Ray Bradbury. While the theme here was about mankind’s suffering as a consequence of nuclear power usage, what was striking in this story was the portrayal of a smart home of 2026 that did not need any human assistance.
This smart house cooks food, cleans dishes, makes warm beds without any human interface. Everything is pre-programmed. Just that the house does its daily tasks even when not a single human being is present.
About 71 years ago when this story was first published, people found it unfathomable that such technology could ever exist. But, it is 2021 and all this and much more is available in electronic appliances.
There are inherent risks that could potentially outweigh the benefits of having a fully connected house with smart appliances.
Take the smart door for instance. Using AI and facial recognition, the door could automatically open for visitors based on pre-programmed data. So, if you have a nanny or house help, they could be let in without you having to be physically present in the house to open the door.
Various studies done recently too have confirmed that AI-led facial recognition technology is not foolproof. A 2019 US study also showed that facial recognition algorithms are far less accurate at identifying African-American and Asian faces compared to Caucasian faces.
Picture this. Someone could potentially intrude into your house when you are away if he/she looks fairly similar to a nanny/relative/house help. Imagine the dangers of unknown persons getting access to your house only because the facial recognition technology failed.
Within the house as well, advanced appliances could pose risks especially to children or senior citizens. Someone could easily switch on the washing machine from their house not knowing that a child could be near it. Instances of children getting accidentally locked inside a machine are not uncommon.
There is a similar danger with pre-programmed bath tubs with geysers that are designed to fill up at a certain temperature at particular times of the day. What if an elderly member or child in the family is unable to switch off the system in your absence?
Companies designing these products are well aware of these risks. They would also justify customers to exercise caution and have manual shutoff functions to be enabled for all appliances. But the question is if AI is meant to make life simpler, why should one make manual interventions?
Also, there are fears around who is collecting all the data from these devices and how it is being used. What happens if a hacker gets access to this data and engages in phishing attacks or hacks into your system?
In places like Taiwan where smart robots and connected appliances are increasingly being used, risks of hackers misusing loopholes in the systems to hack into the devices are being common.
At a recent consumer electronics conference, IoT engineers from this region recalled multiple instances of hackers taking control of household robots making it malfunction and even damage household products. The hackers have also started to demand bitcoins or cash payments to release control.
So how are the technology encryption and data security processes being undertaken to avoid such hacks?
Until there are clear answers to these questions, making one’s home fully smart could be a potential risk. Unaware customers simply getting their homes and appliances to become smarter since it is the market trend, should in fact be dissuaded from doing so.
Yes, some innovations are helpful. These include switching on/off lights or fans using mobile sensors that alter AC temperature based on weather or even cameras inside refrigerators to show what products are stored. Beyond that, there are hidden risks.