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Are Smart Devices Too Smart for Their Own Good?

Paige Leuschner
Feb 22, 2018

There is so much promise around how smart devices will make our lives more comfortable, convenient, efficient, and automated. These devices are supposed to learn from our lifestyle patterns, analyze this information in real-time, and perform tasks seamlessly in the background, without it even occurring to the user that all of this smart stuff is happening. I have bought into this promise, having adopted several digital assistant-enabled devices and connected products, because I can see a future when all of this tech comes together to create truly smart homes. And I’m not the only one—these futuristic ideas about tech seamlessly, automatically operating in the background of our lives can be seen in popular media like Black Mirror and Her. This future is imaginable, lingering on the horizon.

The Problem with "Smarts"

However, we are still at the precipice of the technology revolution supporting the future scenarios as seen in pop culture. Don’t get me wrong, technologies emerging today really are smart, and are already making our lives significantly better. But at this time, many these devices are not actually delivering on their promise, and they don’t work that well in our everyday lives. For example, my colleague, who is also an early adopter of smart technology, has been having issues with his ecobee3 lite. His smart thermostat has started preheating at such early hours of the morning that he wakes up before his alarm clock, sweating. ecobee customer support has suggested that the problem may be because he likes to sleep cold, at 60°F, and wake up warm, at 70°F, and that the large variance in setpoint means the thermostat must kick on the heating system well in advance to make up the difference in temperature by the time my colleague is awake. The issue makes sense logically, but ultimately my colleague shouldn’t have to compromise on his desired temperatures. A smart thermostat should be smart enough to figure it out. And his Nest isn’t any better—when the cooling season comes around, his Nest sends him alerts that it is unable to activate his cooling system, when his home doesn’t even have a cooling system. I’ve heard countless stories of people tearing smart thermostats out of the wall to replace them with programmable thermostats, never opening the digital assistant device they got for Christmas because they don’t really know what smart things it can do, and returning smart plugs for plugs with a simple timer.

As a consumer, these examples have put doubts in my mind about how smart these products really are. As a research analyst, when I attend shows like CES where some of the most impressive and innovative products are on display, it makes me skeptical about how these devices will actually perform in the home. These devices are peddled to consumers as seamless, automatic, and easy to use, but sometimes it seems we are spending more time managing them than they are managing our lives. Perhaps these devices are too smart for their own good, and consumers are not ready for how advanced these products can be—we just want the old, dumb devices that we know will work. The learning curve for smart technology is steep and we are still in an early stage of piloting and innovation, but as these technologies reach the hands of mainstream consumers, vendors need to ensure that their smart products are delivering on their promises of being smart.