Making a fool of yourself with IoT

My first job with bell labs in 1985 was to work on an application called “automated building management”, a product for controlling the environment and security of large buildings. During an upgrade for a large corporation I trashed a rather sensitive memory board on the server and the application failed. That night the security guards guided hundreds of employees to their cars by flashlight as no one could remember where to find the light switch.

For many years I considered the staff of that building inept. How could they so easily lose control of the basic functions of the building? And then I discovered the Internet of things, smart devices, the smart home…

My first purchase was a Nest Smoke Detector that can email me when my house is on fire: presumably so I know there’s no point in coming home. I also bought the Nest Smart Thermostat because they could talk to each other – and you don’t want your smart devices to be lonely. The smoke detector (which is also a CO2 detector) can tell the thermostat to switch off the boiler if it detects carbon monoxide, which is actually quite clever.

Next, I spent 100s of pounds on smart light bulbs. I justified the purchase to Alison by saying we needed to learn this technology, or we wouldn’t know how to turn the lights on when we visited our grandchildren. At the time, we didn’t have any grandchildren, but you get the point. We don’t want to be behind our kids with technology.

Alison still believes these devices are there to spy on her… of course I spy on her, but that wasn’t the reason for buying them. My aim is simple: rather than having the smoke detector email me, it will ask the lights to light a red path to the back door and signal a smart lock to unlock the door. All that remains is to train Lottie (our dog) to follow the lights when they go red and open the door – then we won’t have to hide the matches when we go out for the evening without her.

I haven’t come close to my objective: Lottie has a real problem with the door handle. The real result is that I have lost control of our house…

I wasn’t home for the first incident, but Alison was. It turns out that the default position of my lights is on. In the past, if we had a short power cut in the middle of the night, we would be unaware until we saw the flashing clock on the cooker the next morning. Now, it turns out, when the power comes back on in the middle of the night, so do all the lights – full brightness – even the ones in the bedroom. Alison wasn’t pleased.

I relocated the bedroom lights, and, over time, Alison forgave me. But then, last Christmas, all the lights, everywhere in the house, randomly cycled through their colours. It took me most of the evening to find a cure. As it turns out I had programmed them, without realising, to do this when the space station flies over Houston. I’m sure this is useful to someone, but Alison didn’t see it that way.

I love technology, and I can see wonderful potential in smart technology. But in the home, most of these devices are just toys and they aren’t very smart… or maybe it’s me that’s not.