Welcome to Antenna, our glance into the middle distance and the life-changing developments the near future will bring. We’ll also look at the investment implications which, as ever, are far from intuitive.
Technological progress has created an always-on world, where the boundaries between work and home seem forever under assault and our to-do lists overflow. But AI could be the antidote? It is already saving us precious spare time: ever asked Siri or Alexa for directions, called an Uber, or had inappropriate emails filtered into a spam folder? Then AI has made you more efficient.
This trend is set to continue as the applications of AI multiply. But as it steps up to the next level, AI will not just advise us, it will start to take decisions on our behalf and, as it gets to know us almost better than we know ourselves, everything will become more personalised.
So how will this play out in our day-to-day home lives? “Sadly, I don’t think we’ll see robot butlers any time soon!” laughs Professor Michael Wooldridge, head of the University of Oxford’s Computer Science unit and author of the Ladybird Expert Guide to Artificial Intelligence. He says that near-future applications of AI are going to be “a bit less obvious”, pointing to AI-driven “smart heating and power-management systems” as one of his major predictions for the future. Such systems already exist, of course, with companies including Nest, Hive and Honeywell selling products that allow you to control your heating remotely, adjust temperatures in separate rooms of your home, and thus help you save money.
But such systems will only get smarter. Dave Coplin, Microsoft’s former Chief Envisioning Officer and an expert on future technologies, believes their influence will expand to include other areas of the home in ways that could significantly change our lives. “It’s yet to reach widespread adoption, but the use of AI technologies to connect a bunch of ‘dumb’ devices, creating a truly smart home, is coming fast,” he says. “If every aspect of your home is connected – the doors, windows, fridge, TV, heating, cooling, lighting, curtains, garage door and so on – then AI can provide the intelligence to connect and manipulate those devices in a way that is completely tailored to you.”
What this means in reality, Coplin says, is having a home that not only responds to your commands, but actively learns your habits, and performs tasks it predicts you may want before you even think to ask for them. “When you arrive home, the bath has been run, the temperature is perfect and the drinks have been chilled to perfection; your favourite TV boxset is primed and ready, and, just as you finish laying the table, the doorbell rings with your food delivery,” he says. “You haven’t actually ‘asked’ for anything, but everything has been done for you based on what you’d normally do in such a scenario.” This may seem fantastical, but, as with the smart heating systems already mentioned, it is starting to happen, admittedly with human intervention. Futuristic devices such as smart fridges can be found in homes around the world, although inventories have to be updated by owners, rather than devices automatically re-ordering food. If Coplin’s predictions are right, however, it may not be too long before our fridges are re-stocking themselves with our favourite drinks.
To arrive at the ideal smart home, we will need to upgrade the physical infrastructure in our homes. This process has not happened as quickly as some predicted, possibly because of the cost and security fears. But in the US, the market has seen steady growth over the past few years, with the number of connected homes rising from 17 million in 2015, to 22 million in 2016 and 29 million in 2017, according to consultancy McKinsey.
“The home is a setting where there is a natural repurposing of space and function over time. This is nothing new,” explains designer Kim Colin. She was part of the London-based Future Facility design team who conceived the Amazin Apartment at the Design Museum, a “conceptual home of the future” for older people that automatically re-ordered household products and self-maintained appliances.
Colin believes that, in the transitional period between “invention and total adoption”, we will likely “retrofit” smart home architecture. “Before we change the infrastructure in the built environment – which is a very, very slow process compared with the rate of change of technology – we will likely work around existing architecture,” she explains. But innovators, she says, will make a totally “fresh start”. We have seen tech companies “unburdened by the past” make innovations that change not only industries but also the way we live our lives. Why would architecture be any different?
If the home is our biggest personal expense, then travel is the second, and another area where AI will take over mundane tasks is on the roads. Driverless cars may seem more like a utopian vision than the life-changing but fairly quotidian smart heating systems. In actual fact, driverless cars are much closer than you might think. Professor Wooldridge believes that real driverless car technologies will hit the roads in about five years’ time, suggesting there will be a lane on the motorway designated for driverless cars: “In 20 years? I think it will be common.”
Companies are already working on this. Bea Longworth, head of automotive PR at technology company NVIDIA, says the technology behind driverless cars will change more than just how we drive. She explains: “They’ll change our whole relationship with transportation. Car-sharing schemes already offer many people the benefits of having a car without the downsides – insurance, maintenance, road tax. Now imagine if you could combine that with the convenience of a taxi. Rather than owning a car, you could subscribe to one.”
NVIDIA is working with companies including Mercedes and Toyota to develop such a future, where “an on-demand autonomous vehicle automatically personalises itself to your preferences or even provides different kinds of environment depending on what you want to do during your journey”. Cars could act as an office, cinema or even a sleeping compartment.
“Driverless cars seem an inevitability to me,” Professor Wooldridge says. “The only question is when it will happen.” Whatever experts’ answers were to that question at the start of 2018, they are likely to have changed since March, when the first fatal crash involving a pedestrian and an autonomous vehicle occurred in the US. Elaine Herzberg was tragically struck and killed by an autonomous Uber while crossing a road in Arizona. Neither the vehicle’s AI-powered systems nor the human driver reacted in time, calling into question the sophistication of such systems.
As the crash reminded us, it can be easy to overlook the negative consequences of technology among the excitement of innovation. One of the most widespread drawbacks of AI for individuals is the potential lack of privacy. In 2017, iRobot, the maker of the robotic Roomba vacuum cleaner, faced controversy after it announced plans to sell ‘mapped floor plans’ of customers’ homes, ostensibly to help the operation of other smart devices. Many, very reasonably, believed that this was an invasion of privacy. Others argue that giving up such data is not only par for the course when it comes to AI and smart tech, but a necessary part of achieving the utopian, tech-enabled homes that many of us want.
The real challenge, says Coplin, is for tech companies, advertisers and brands to earn the trust of the people that use their services. “Ultimately, the opportunity provided by AI is simply too great for us to ignore, and as a result we will need to drive a conversation with consumers, tech companies and governments to create an environment that is respectful of the privacy of individuals, but is able to ensure that data can be used in a way that can drive the innovation and opportunity to deliver a transformational change in how we might live, work and play.” Wooldridge describes himself as a “pessimist” about privacy, adding that younger people are particularly at risk due to their propensity to “routinely share information about themselves that their elders would not dream of”. The recent scandal around Facebook data being used to manipulate election results shows how seemingly innocuous data can be manipulated. Being careful and thoughtful about what data is shared is key here.
How technology will develop in the future is still, to some extent, a mystery. From AI and machine learning to more tangible pieces of consumer tech, the field is so rapidly expanding, research so vastly accelerating, that there is no real way of saying how our lives or homes might look in 10 or 20 years’ time. What we do know, though, is that our lives are going to change – hopefully for the better.
In our personal lives, AI will take over mundane tasks, making some very familiar objects redundant and improving the consumer experience, but only if providers build a relationship of trust with users
1. AI will embed everywhere decisions are made. Smart homes will use our data to learn our habits and take decisions on our behalf.
2. Car ownership will be a thing of the past when driverless cars hit the roads. Instead, we will subscribe to vehicles.
3. We will only reap the full benefits of AI if we are willing to give up our data, but consumers need to be careful about what they share.
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