What Exactly Do We Want?

Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend and had an opportunity to share our summer experiences. The typical response I get when I say I am working on “Internet of Things” and “Smart Homes” is “That is so cool! I would never be able to do CS.”

This friend, keen on knowing more details, asked what exactly a Smart Home is. With vague details, I mentioned that it is a house that can learn behaviors of people and automate certain repeated patterns and can communicate with people living in it.

She raised a question, “So would it turn lights off automatically after averaging out the time I go to bed?” I acknowledged that is one possibility. Then, she quickly asked, “What if one day I go to bed at a different time?”

Yes. This is the nature of humans. More prone to pick out faults then appreciating what works. Even if a smart home correctly learns patterns and does things 99% correctly, people will take it for granted. However, they will pick up on 1% that didn’t meet their expectations.

Machine learning is in a sense an “averaging” process. An “average” is bound to have standard deviation, or margin of error. Will people be generous to accept these margins of error?

Let’s say a student’s bed time is on average, 1:16AM. One day he decides to go to bed at 1:15AM. Will he be patient enough to wait for 60 seconds until lights turn off automatically? And he almost always has coffee right after he takes a shower in the morning, so the smart home brews coffee while he is taking a shower after detecting motion and water usage in the bathroom. What if he decides not to drink coffee that day because he has a stomachache? Will he turn a blind eye to the coffee that was automatically brewed, or complain about wasted coffee beans and electricity?

Recalling the papers on Nest thermostat, people were more unhappy about Nest picking up on exceptional cases rather than it learning the completely wrong patterns. If Nest works as it should, people will gradually forget about the need to control temperature manually, forget that Nest is doing all the work for them, and then get mad when Nest does one thing wrong.

So maybe we don’t want automation. No one’s life follows a fixed schedule to the second 24/7, so there will be that 1% that makes people unhappy.  Maybe all we want is just a house that listens to what we want — as opposed to making decisions on its own —  and obediently follows directions.


  1. [email protected]

    You are absolutely right. That’s a question we’re going to try to answer with the comment-card study.

    • Jiyun Lee

      Now that I think about it, Mode is an incredible idea. I don’t think people mind doing one thing — turning lights on when entering and off when leaving a room — but do wish for some kind of automation(misleading vocabulary use here) when there needs to be multiple actions happening. Especially during summer, my family often runs back to the house after getting in the car to make sure all fans and air conditioners are off. People are good at doing one thing, but not as good in remembering to do many things. Mode gives complete control to the user but takes care of multiple actions.

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