Blog / World’s Biggest Tech Candy Store News from the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show – Part 2: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Last week, I wrote about some of the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Show-stoppers and Duds. We saw an explosion of Smart devices for personal and home use. I promised this week to explore some of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of these devices. But first, one more bizarre Smart device.
One of the most popular Smart devices was shown by Kohler – a renowned manufacturer of kitchen and bathroom fixtures. The Smart toilet had a sense of fascination about it that drew people like moths to an open flame. This dark-grey square hi-tech wonder had a host of Smart features; the lid would open on command, the seat could be heated to your personal preference; it would play music from your play list, the lighting could be dimmed, and heated water could be directed to any part of the exposed anatomy automatically. Of course it would flush and close the lid when you rose from it. Most of this was by voice command – something I’ll address later. At $6,000 USD, I don’t think I will be ordering one anytime soon.
Now for some of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:
The Good: Potty jokes notwithstanding, there are some benefits to Smart home and wearable devices, especially for the disabled or seniors who need additional care. Many of these devices could allow them to be more independent and require less hands-on care for routine tasks. Smart devices could also improve safety for them. Some devices that come to mind are: underwear, vital-signs monitoring, speech-recognizing appliances, automated reminder devices (time to take your medication), and simple robots to assist with picking up or moving floor items. Many of these items are available now at a reasonable cost.
Many Smart devices can also help save energy. Smart lighting, heating, and appliances that are activated when you enter a room are simple examples, as are Smart sun shades that automatically track the incoming sunlight and room-use by individual preference. Smart fridges and cupboards that sense when you are running low on common food items – and order them for you – could cut down on the number of trips to buy groceries. Amazon are experimenting with automated home delivery of groceries.
The Bad: For all of the smartness of these devices, most do not talk to each other – as there are very few industry standards for communication and data-exchange protocols. Thus, each device is not aware of what other devices are doing; the Smart furnace doesn’t know that the Smart sunshades opened to allow extra sunlight into the room, thus requiring less heat. Or, the Smart fridge doesn’t know that Smart cupboard is low on corn chips when it orders more fresh salsa.
A related problem shows up when trying to control the devices. These devices do require human intervention from time to time. This means a Smartphone APP is required for each type of device – and a copy of the APP on everyone’s phone who lives in the house. That’s a lot of APPs to install and manage. There is another path to controlling these devices; by voice command using Google Home or Amazon Alexa, but that might be ugly (more later.)
The final Bad is the connectivity of these devices. WiFi is the gold-standard of Smart device connectivity. A few devices use network cable connections, and even fewer have their own communication hardware. Most connect to your home or business WiFi network. Smart device manufacturers focus on the device operation and features, and pay little – if any – attention to Security. Smart devices have tiny computers in them that use very simple operating systems, and hence have rudimentary Security protocols. If a device gets hacked, it can expose your entire WiFi network, including all of the devices connected to it; your banking records, pictures, tax returns, wills, mortgage documents, and medical history, could all be compromised. There are ways around this, but it requires more network infrastructure and Security for a home or corporate network. More about this in Part 3.
The Ugly: Many Smart devices showed off their compatibility with Google Home and Amazon Alexa. These are essentially Smartphones with no cell-phone, screen or keypad; just big speakers and microphones. They are 100% voice-activated, and so must listen to every sound in their range. Once they hear a command, they attempt to act on it – or provide the requested information played back through the speakers. This appears to be acceptable, until you realize that these devices are also connected to your WiFi, and hence to the Internet, and are in constant communication with their home servers at Google or Amazon‘s Data Centers. In fact, what makes the voice recognition of these devices so accurate, is the ability to digitally compare what they hear to a library of 100’s of millions of similar commands from other devices. In other words, everything you say in your home or corporate office is potentially recorded and analyzed. Big Brother is listening.
Connecting Smart devices makes the problem worse. Now Google knows what temperature you like the house at, your grocery list, plus your TV and music preferences. But they could also know your list of medications, when you take a shower, and of course, when and how you use your Smart toilet!
Most of this might appear to be innocent – does Google or Amazon really care about these details? The answer is yes, in as much as it allows them – and their advertisers – access to BIG DATA, which eventually leads to targeted advertising just for you. This is very subtle, and potentially insidious, as now Google will only show you things it thinks you might buy, rather than what you really want to know; it limits choice and you don’t even know it. They’ve had the ability to track your Internet browser usage for years, but this is a much higher level of data gathering – and you have no control.
Of course, the Conspiracy Theorists will have a field day with this scenario. But for now, I’m not rushing out to buy a Google Home or Amazon Alexa – or a Smart toilet; perhaps I’m just old-fashioned.
Next week, I will address ways to mitigate the risks of the Bad and the Ugly. Perhaps Smart devices can help make for stress-free IT.