No, your smart home is not trying to kill you. It might be thinking about it, though.
That’s really the only reasonable conclusion after yesterday’s news that Amazon’s home assistant, Alexa, has started creepily laughing out of nowhere.
While Amazon claims the laughter is a response to a misheard “Alexa, laugh” command, I think we all know that they’re lying and that the machines have achieved sentience. See you in the abandoned mine where the last of us humans hide out from the drone patrols.
Ha ha, just kidding. (I think.) But yesterday’s creepy hiccup did serve to remind us that the inevitable transition to the smart home hasn’t been without its speed bumps. The reality is that the total smart home is already here; it’s just not ubiquitous yet. If you had several thousand dollars to drop, and a lot of hours to spend surfing the internet, you could, today, have everything from a smart fork that vibrates when it detects that you’re eating too fast to an egg tray that will text you when you’re running low on eggs to a floss dispenser that will remind you to floss. (Man, the future sounds really annoying.) There’s even a $1500 toaster oven that will automatically detect what you put inside, and cook it without needing any input or instructions from you.
Of course, it doesn’t always quite work how it’s supposed to. Before the last round of updates, the smart oven nuked baked goods, took almost an hour to cook salmon, and sent you weird indecipherable text messages about your food. (“ETA: PESSIMISTIC.”) That’s the thing about the smart home; when it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, you’re screwed. Thousands of people have learned the hard way that when your smart thermostat goes down – usually because your wifi is out, which isn’t a very rare occurrence – the results are unpredictable. The heat might continue, but beyond your control (annoying), the thermostat might require the ol’ unplug-and-plug-back-in manual reboot (also annoying), or the heat might just shut down entirely (REALLY annoying). In many cases, the tech is still buggy. Unfortunately, it’s often vulnerable too.
The wifi-connected baby monitor is a good example. Turns out these combination webcam-speakers are easily accessed through a sort of online side door (sometimes called the “Internet of Things”). Parents everywhere have woken up to strangers shouting at their babies through the monitors, playing scary music, or telling them, out of nowhere, “you should probably password protect your monitor.” In one case, a three year old kept telling his parents he was “scared of the man in the monitor” – they had no idea what he was talking about until one day, out of nowhere, someone started screaming obscenities from the speaker. In another case, a mother was putting her baby down for a nap and noticed that the monitor’s camera was following her every move. It gets worse. Samsung makes a smart refrigerator that connects to your phone and Google account, so you can look at your Gmail or Google Calendar on the fridge’s front display screen. The problem is, the fridge’s code wasn’t actually secure, so anybody who hacked into your fridge – which is no more difficult than getting into your baby monitor – could have gotten your Google password. If I had to choose between someone reading all my emails or an evil baby monitor watching me and playing scary music in the middle of the night, I’m picking the evil baby monitor ten times out of ten.
Or maybe your smart home could accidentally hack itself? When a German man’s smart home froze up, he connected his laptop to find the problem. Turned out that a light bulb had burned out, and was sending the central smart hub notifications that it, the bulb, needed to be changed. The problem was that the bulb was bombarding the system with so many messages that it crashed the whole network, much like when hackers shut down a website by bombarding it with so many requests that it overloads. Scary to think something as small as a light bulb could bring down an entire smart home.
And those are the “smart” screwups. Like the rest of us, smart homes sometimes make plain ol’ dumb mistakes too. Experts at Virginia Tech built a super-smart-home, dubbed FutureHAUS, that consisted of fully-integrated smart everything and modular rooms that snapped together like Legos to be assembled into any size home. But the FutureHAUS burned to the ground soon after it was put on display. When they snapped together the smart rooms to form the futuristic genius house, some wiring got mashed in between two panels, and eventually caught on fire. The flames tore through the densely-packed styrofoam-insulated walls, and the house was reduced to ashes in minutes. You hear a story like that, it almost makes you appreciate your offline, analog, pile o’ rocks dumb house.