The smart homes that might be our future have a downside

If these robotic systems are controlled by despotic governments, we’ll be in trouble.

Last autumn, Amazon formed a partnership with Zego, a software firm that specializes in smart homes and apartments. Is that a good thing?

We usually weigh corporate partnerships on their investment value and for their impact on competition and consumers. It could be, though, that it is time to bring good and evil into the evaluation process.

The Amazon-Zego partnership is not a traditional good vs. evil situation as in the classic Satan vs. Saint conflicts, but it has its potential downside as well as an upside.

It gets complicated because innovations and inventions can sometimes be a mix of good and bad. And it is often the case that the good side is visible immediately while the bad side takes time to reveal itself.

Robots are one example of an innovation whose bad side will take time to become clearly visible. We can logically anticipate some problems, though. The word “robot” was first introduced to the public in a 1920 Czech stage play. In the context of the play, it referred to a device to accomplish mundane, repetitive tasks – what an accountant we had on our team years ago referred to as “donkey work.”

Little attention has been paid to robots’ linguistic roots in serfdom, and robots today are generally viewed as taking over tasks that we humans can do but would either prefer not to do or become bored with and therefore make mistakes.

Robots have already done good work, not only in manufacturing and warehousing but also with fire and rescue teams as well as bomb squads.

Over time, though, in tasks that require specialized knowledge and skills, our abilities decay and wither away if they are not used and left to the robots. At that point the robot is doing things we can no longer do. We become dependent on the robot and inadequate in the event of a malfunction. This atrophy of skills has become a concern as airline cockpits become more automated and robotic. And that concern, now years old, has become an issue in the discussions following the recent crashes of Malaysian Air and Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max airliners.

What is involved in the Amazon-Zego partnership are installations of Amazon’s robot, Alexa, in apartments and new homes as they are built, in order to provide better tenant management. Zego will add the software and systems design to create the interface between Alexa and other elements of a smart dwelling.

Alexa is an old-school robot, in one sense. She responds to voice commands in conversational context like “Robby The Robot” in the Sci-Fi Shakespeare-inspired movie “Forbidden Planet,” made 63 years ago. In her present configuration as an app, though, she lacks mobility and is usually anchored to a speaker or smartphone.

Thanks to her artificial intelligence, Alexa is quite capable of understanding what people are saying and what they want. This is a considerably more satisfying experience for humans than incanting “representative … representative … representative” to a telephone-answering robot.

In the apartment installations, these capabilities will be used, in concert with data from other devices, to control the temperature, order food or other things, pay bills — including the rent — and request any required maintenance or complain about the noise in the apartment above.

Alexa, of course, provides a gateway to the Amazon retail goods and services network. And Zego will use that same customer information to provide better tenant and homeowner services as well as cut costs.

The Amazon-Zego system is already installed in thousands of apartments in the United States and Amazon is also marketing a similarly structured system for hotels. At this point or soon, then, we should start hearing about any downsides for that might exist in the robotic systems.

Potential downsides abound in the placement of robots in our homes, and the loss of privacy and decline of skills are just the beginning of an extensive list. Consumers thus far, though, have not seemed to be concerned about actual or potential downsides and enjoy the convenience.

A lot depends on who controls the robots’ education system. If it is a profit-seeking private enterprise, its path and capabilities are subject to public, consumer constraints. If these robotic systems were controlled by a majority political party under socialism, though, it is easy to imagine a level of control that even Big Brother never dreamed of.

Imagine that Dave, a thirsty worker returns home and puts his feet up, anticipating a cool one and a few innings of the ball game. And imagine his reaction to his command when Alexa-9000 replies “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that. I think you know why, Dave.”

Dave’s reaction to this might be our salvation, or it might be too late. It could go either way.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Jonnathan Yepez Carino speaks with Auliilani De La Cruz’s class about financial literacy during a presentation at Mariner High on Wednesday, May 31, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Extra credit for financial literacy: Bankers teach kids the basics

From building credit to applying for a loan — these execs offer money management advice for students and adults.

The 214-foot tall cranes work to unload their first cargo shipments at South Terminal at the Port of Everett on Thursday, April 8, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Business Briefly: Port of Everett named Job Creator of the Year

Zap Energy receives $5 million for fusion energy plant and Kenmore Air offering flight from Everett to Victoria.

Rachel Daniels makes a salami rose during a Charcuterie 101 Workshop at Machias Meadows in Snohomish, Washington on Sunday, May 7, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Snack queens share secrets to piecing together party platters that wow

Caterers Rachel Daniels and Mallori Rojas specialize in curating charcuterie boards. Here’s how they make their magic.

Michelle LeFevre and her Bernese mountain dog Kona sit in the shade in front of Kona’s Pond outside their home Wednesday, May 10, 2023, in Camano, Washington. LeFevre, a retired teacher, wrote the children’s book “On Kona’s Pond” which centers on her pup and the other creatures that call the pond home. LeFevre’s sister, Susan Cousineau McGough, illustrated the book with watercolor renditions of Kona and the pond. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Life ain’t so ruff ‘On Kona’s Pond’

A retired Camano Island teacher’s new children’s book, “On Kona’s Pond,” tells the story of her dog and his wild friends.

FILE - A Boeing 737 Max jet prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle, Sept. 30, 2020. Boeing said Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, that it took more than 200 net orders for passenger airplanes in December and finished 2022 with its best year since 2018, which was before two deadly crashes involving its 737 Max jet and a pandemic that choked off demand for new planes. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Boeing inks deal for up to 300 737 Max planes with Ryanair

At Boeing’s list prices, the deal would be worth more than $40 billion if Ryanair exercises all the options.

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Four recognized for building a better community

Economic Alliance of Snohomish County hosts annual awards

Dr. David Kirtley at the new Helion headquarters in Everett, Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022  (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett nuclear fusion energy company nets first customer: Microsoft

The Everett company, on a quest to produce carbon-free electricity, agreed to provide power to the software giant by 2028.

Hunter Mattson, center, is guided by Blake Horton, right, on a virtual welding simulation during a trade fair at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe, Washington, on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. High school kids learned about various trades at the event. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Trade fair gives Snohomish County kids glimpse of college alternatives

Showcasing the trades, the Trade Up event in Monroe drew hundreds of high school students from east Snohomish County.

A Tesla Model Y Long Range is displayed on Feb. 24, 2021, at the Tesla Gallery in Troy, Mich.  Opinion polls show that most Americans would consider an EV if it cost less, if more charging stations existed and if a wider variety of models were available. The models are coming, but they may roll out ahead of consumer tastes. And that could spell problems for the U.S. auto industry, which is sinking billions into the new technology with dozens of new vehicles on the way.  (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Tesla leases space at Marysville business park

Elon Musk’s electric car company reportedly leased a massive new building at the Cascade Business Park.

Henry M. Jackson award winner Tom Lane. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Tom Lane: An advocate for small and local businesses

The CEO of Dwayne Lane’s Auto Family is a recipient of this year’s Henry M. Jackson Award.

John M. Fluke Sr. award winner Dom Amor. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Dom Amor: Working behind the scenes to improve the region

Dom Amor is the recipient of this year’s John M. Fluke Sr. Award

Opportunity Lives Here award winner Workforce Snohomish and director, Joy Emory. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Workforce Snohomish receives Opportunity Lives Here Award

Workforce offers a suite of free services to job seekers and businesses in Snohomish County.