It’s pretty cool to think that someday soon our fridge will detect that we’re low on milk and alert us about it, or even order more on its own. What if it also alerts our doctor that we’re eating too much cheese and not enough veggies? What if that information gets to our insurance company? Or if the government can tell we’re cheating the employment insurance system with an unreported job, because we’re buying expensive cuts of meat?

How smart do we really want our appliances to be?

Two stories got me thinking about that this week: Google just announced that it will join with Samsung and a number of other players to form the Thread Group, a means to establish a standard protocol for the “internet of things” (IoT). Which makes excellent sense—imagine the headache if our Proctor Silex toaster can’t tell our Whirlpool fridge that the bread is stale! And a new Telus/IDC study shows that 30% of medium and large businesses in Canada plan to deploy IoT in some way within the next two years. Since the internet of things could incorporate everything from your pacemaker to health monitors on cattle to traffic sensors to home smoke alarms, and countless more devices, there’s no question that within another ten years we’ll be surrounded by “smart” objects.

My SF writer brain thinks this is outstanding. Then my everyday brain slaps me upside the head and reminds me that I can’t even keep up with all the settings on my iPhone. Am I going to actually allocate time to decide whether or not my microwave should have “Location Services” enabled and if my bathroom soap dispenser should be able to talk to my treadmill? Not going to happen. Default settings will reign, meaning someone else’s idea of what information my personal belongings should collect and who they should send it to.

Yikes. I don’t think even George Orwell would have imagined being ratted out by his electric toothbrush. Although the more likely result is that I’ll start to brush my teeth and an ad will pop up on my bathroom mirror, assuring me that I can get even more whitening power for less money if I switch to new Galaxy toothpaste with Quantumcleen®.

The purpose of the internet of things is to make the products we use more efficient, and more useful, to make us better informed for the choices we face, to make our lives run more smoothly. It certainly has the potential to do all those things and more. As long as we know what we want and make our desires clearly heard. Right now, it’s big business that’s driving the move toward IoT, with the cooperation of governments, and we have a pretty good idea that what they want isn’t always what we want.

I don’t dare think about what could happen if our devices become even smarter. ‘Cause if my vibrating La-Z-Boy and my entertainment system decide to go on strike until I upgrade my cable subscription…I’m turning Amish.


If you’re of a certain age the first personal robot in fiction that made an impression on you may have been Rosie the maid from “The Jetsons” animated TV show. The idea of robotic servants has been around much longer than that, of course, and every year we expect to come closer to finding one available in stores. Well, OK, maybe at Neiman Marcus. But if you were keeping an eye on the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, there really wasn’t much that fits our usual concept. You know: the basically humanoid robot, a similar size to us with roughly analogous limbs and sensors that will do all of the jobs around the house that we don’t feel like doing. A few look cute, but aren’t much use as anything but toys or novelty items. The robots that do useful work are specialized: a small robot that will wash your windows, another that will clean your barbecue grill. Yes, there are scientists all over that are working to develop humanoid robots, but my question is: why bother? Why make a general purpose robot that can “do it all”—like us, only better? It’s a massive challenge, and it isn’t necessary. And from what I see, that’s not the direction things are going.

I have a feeling our cities of fifty years from now will surround us with specialized robots that will each do one thing and do it well. There’s no need for a robot that can clean the house and drive you to an appointment. It’s much more likely we’ll build houses with self cleaning rooms, each with its own Roomba and wipers on the windows (especially with dirt and moisture-repellant surfaces everywhere). And we’re getting closer all the time to self-driving cars. (You can read more about them here.) So-called smart appliances will not only order the groceries but assemble and cook them, too. And brain-computer interfaces will connect us to the internet and, through it, to all of our robotic devices, so we won’t even have to lift a finger to set anything in motion. Why would we need a robotic servant that looks sort of like us?

Child care? Maybe. But a daycare space with one smart computer (or human) in charge and a lot of mechanized baby movers or glorified waldos, for the physical tasks, seems more efficient and more likely. Medical care could use robots, but they wouldn’t have to be mobile. We’d go to them, or remote-controlled gurneys would carry us.

I don’t see a practical need for an all-purpose humanoid robot at all, unless it’s for one of the least practical reasons of all: companionship. (No, I’m not going to get into all the movies and books about glorified sex dolls—you can check them out on your own.) But if it’s companionship we want, don’t make a robot that looks like Rosie. A big, cuddly teddy bear would probably be the way to go.

As for me, I hope we still have dogs.