Your Coffeemaker Is Watching You

Get ready for home appliances that track your movements and know what you want before you do.

Alvaro Dominguez

Half a century ago, the House of the Future was a marvel of plastic and fiberglass. The $1 million model home, built for an exhibition at Disneyland in 1957, had four cantilevered, capsule-like rooms arranged around a central column, so that it appeared to hover about five feet off the ground. Inside were appliances that receded into countertops when not in use, an adjustable-height sink, an early prototype of a video telephone, and a heating-and-cooling system that emitted the gentle scent of saltwater breezes or pine needles. Best of all, instead of a refrigerator and freezer, the house had three “cold zones,” chilled compartments that could be lowered from the ceiling with the push of a button.

Refrigerator design hasn’t changed that much in the decades since. Nowadays, though, smart fridges almost always come up in conversations about the Internet of Things, a term that describes a network of Web-connected objects designed to perceive their surroundings and communicate with one another.

Today, the refrigerator of the future is an appliance that, yes, keeps your Chablis chilled, but also adjusts its temperature based on the kinds of food it contains, reminds you to drink more water, and automatically orders a gallon of milk from the store before you run out. Which makes it a pretty good proxy for an ongoing shift—one poised to accelerate in the decades ahead—in how people interact with their homes. Here’s what that shift will look like.

1. Sensors Will Surround You

The home of the future will be freckled with sensors that soak up data about all the activity that goes on inside. Systems in the house will then use that trove of information to understand your needs.

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Already, certain washing machines can assess the size of each load—and how dirty the clothes are—to determine how much water and detergent to use. A company called June makes an “intelligent oven” (hitting the market later this year) that will use sensors and cameras to figure out what kind of food you’re preparing, then adjust the temperature and cooking method accordingly—just throw in a chicken or a batch of cookies, and the oven will take it from there. Down the road, smart surfaces all over the house will respond to whatever’s placed on them: A countertop could help keep a mug of coffee warm, or make sure a beer stays ice-cold.

Your house will know not just whether someone is home but who that someone is. Existing home-security cameras like the Netatmo Welcome can identify family members upon arrival, and notify you via your smartphone when they detect an unfamiliar face. In the future, such systems will use not just facial-recognition software but also data from biometric sensors, like fingerprints and heartbeats, to identify people. And once your house knows who’s home, it can automatically implement their preferences for lighting, temperature, music, and so on. This technology will also let you inside in the first place: When the front door can recognize you, there’s no need to carry a key.

Your house may also monitor the systems that keep you going, using sensors to track how much sleep and exercise you get, what you eat, and how your vital signs change throughout the day. (And, if the idea doesn’t make you squeamish, smart toilets could monitor your waste for signs of health problems, and perhaps share that information with your doctor or health-insurance provider.) Having a house smart enough to call for help when it detects troubling physiological signs—perhaps your heart rate is too low, or you’re not moving around normally—could allow you to continue living independently late in life.

Of course, a home that tracks you so closely will be a little creepy, too. Just think of all that data in the cloud detailing the movements and habits of your family—a second-by-second record that spans years or even decades. Used appropriately, that information will make your household run like a machine. Yet technology companies will be the ones deciding what’s appropriate, and that might mean repurposing data about the intimate details of your life for ultra-targeted advertising. Even worse will be the inevitable security breaches. With access to your home’s data, a burglar or stalker could figure out when you’re likely to be in the house. Then again, your house will probably know how and when to call for help.

2. Your House Will Talk to You

Thermostats like Alphabet’s Nest can already adjust the temperature based on outdoor weather conditions and whether or not anyone’s home. In the future, more appliances will anticipate your needs: A coffeemaker that can sense your movements might automatically start brewing as soon as you get out of bed. Lights and ceiling fans will turn on and off as you enter and leave rooms. The fridge and pantry might even compare notes and suggest recipes based on the food you have on hand.

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Though many of your appliances will be rigged up to WiFi and voice control, you won’t necessarily be subjected to a cacophony of devices vying for your attention. Instead, your home might have a single cognitive assistant—a disembodied, omnipresent voice always waiting in the wings—that could control all your appliances, and even help you manage your life.

Today’s Amazon Echo and the forthcoming Google Home respond to voice commands and can do things like play music and remind you of an upcoming dentist appointment. In a decade or two, machine assistants will be able to do much more, says James Kozloski, an inventor at IBM. Along with his colleagues, he patented a system that uses sensors and machine learning to predict a person’s needs. Such a system could remind you, just as you’re sitting down to FaceTime with an old friend, that her birthday is coming up. It might even change the social dynamics of your household. Instead of one person constantly nagging another to unload the dishwasher or take out the trash, the cognitive assistant could predict the optimal time for completing chores and offer a nudge. Or, better yet, it could wordlessly instruct a machine to do the work for you.

3. You’ll Never Be Truly Alone

In the decades to come, an influx of home robots could make today’s appliances seem positively quaint. The market for consumer and office robots is expected to surge in the next three years, according to a 2015 report by Business Insider Intelligence, a technology-research firm, exceeding $1.5 billion and far outpacing the growth of robots in manufacturing.

We already have robots that vacuum, like the Roomba, but in the future we’ll also have inflatable robot arms that can scrub surfaces and bathe people, says Christopher Atkeson, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon, whose lab has produced prototypes of such machines. Eventually, robots will fold laundry, cook meals, and pick up clutter. And if they work well, you won’t even notice them. The key to effective robots is “being able to anticipate or predict what people will do,” says Julie Shah, the head of the Interactive Robotics Group at MIT. “The idea is to either support [people] or stay out of their way.”

That said, some people may want a robot that hangs around. In Japan, a friendly humanoid robot called Pepper that can perceive and respond to human emotion has proved enormously popular since it went on sale two years ago. Pepper might turn out to be the perfect roommate—helpful, kind, and always up for hanging out, but never in the way.

Perhaps the already faint line between online and offline life will vanish, and human relationships with intelligent machines will represent a new extension of our social landscape. Your in-house robot could serve as an avatar for friends and family, controllable from afar so that, with the help of robotic arms and legs, you could dance with or hug a loved one who is halfway around the planet. The real promise of—or problem with—the house of the future, then, might be that you’ll never have to leave it.