Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Are you ready to receive emails from your refrigerator?

Nowadays, there is a lot of excitement about the low-cost computing, low-cost sensing, and universal connectivity. These technologies can be combined together to create the next generation of appliances with truly remarkable capabilities. In fact, companies are beginning to imagine a new industry around this idea (e.g., Industrial Internet by General Electric).

Terms “smart” and “intelligent” have been widely used for the last three decades to market really “dumb” devices. So we will need a new term to characterize the next generation of appliances. I am not creative enough to come up with a good buzzword. So I will just use the term “genius” to refer to the next generation appliances in this post.

From a purely technological perspective, it is feasible to create a “genius” refrigerator and have the following conversation with it in the morning as you open it to get your breakfast.

“Good morning!” your refrigerator greets you in a perky voice.
“Good morning,” you reply in your before-coffee half-sleepy voice.
“By the way, you need a haircut. Should I make an appointment for you?”
“I want to wait for couple of weeks.”
“Are you sure? You should really get a haircut now.”
“I will wait,” you reply as you take out cream for your coffee.
“Your calorie intake has increased and your face looks a bit chubby. You should go see your doctor. Should I make an appointment?”
“No, thank you.”
“Should I send a list of food that you are eating to your doctor?”
“No!”
“Should I email that list to your wife?”
“What the heck! No!!”
“Please throw away eggs. They have expired.”
“Thanks,” you throw away the expired eggs.
“You are really running low on groceries. Should I make a grocery list?”
“Sure.”
“Should I try to find places that have best deal for items on your list?”
“No, I will pick them up from the local Giants,” you reply. You don’t want to go to three stores at the end of a busy day to just save few bucks.
“Your wife always gets the best deals list.”
“Ok. Send me the list.” You are afraid that it might send an email to your wife.
“Should I email you coupons too?”
“Why not!” You are embarrassed to use coupons. But you are getting worried that it might now send email to your wife complaining about your wasteful ways.
“My water filter needs to be changed. Should I order it?”
“How much is it?”
“One hundred nineteen dollars.”
“Can you find me a better deal?”
“This is the best deal.
“Ok. Order it.”
(Later that day, you find a better deal on the filter at Amazon. But your refrigerator company wants to make money by selling you water filters. So it certainly is not interested in finding you a better deal.)
“Your wife’s birthday is next week. Should I order Gucci shoes for your wife? She really likes shoes.”
“How do you know that?”
“I checked her Facebook profile.”
“I will take care of the gift myself.” You are tempted to tell your refrigerator to order the shoes. But if your wife finds out about it, you will be in big trouble.
“My compressor might start making sounds like [...strange clanking sounds…]. Don’t be alarmed by that. I have already scheduled a service call and added it your calendar.”
“How do you know about that sound?”
“I follow tweets from my manufacturer.”
“I hope that you are not tweeting about us to grocery stores. Do you?”
“Please hurry up and try to leave early. Weather is expected to be bad and traffic is looking really bad.”
“Shouldn’t you have told me this before all the chit chat!! What should I do?”
“Please wait. Software update is in progress.…”

Here is what might happen that evening. You arrive at Wegmans, ten miles away from your home to get a good deal on the organic milk and tomatoes. You check email on your smart phone to download the grocery list. You have another email from your refrigerator! It is informing you that Costco has advertised a better sale. So you should go there to pick up tomatoes. The only problem is that the nearest Costco is eight miles away from where you are. You are worried that your refrigerator is “genius” enough to distinguish between the tomatoes from Wegmans and Costco and it might yell at you for wasting money when you try to put them in the refrigerator.

I did not say that you would necessarily enjoy having this conversation and getting emails from your refrigerator. I just said that technology is making it feasible.

By the way, the above scenario is not that far-fetched. Most homes in the United States have a good Internet connection. So, at least in theory, appliances at home can be connected to the Internet. Computing hardware is really inexpensive. So every appliance can have multiple CPUs without increasing its cost appreciably. If it needs more computing power, it can always connect to the cloud (e.g., Amazon Web Services) and do number crunching there.

The sensor cost has come down significantly as well. Every appliance can now have cameras, microphones, inertial measurement units, GPS, and bar code scanners. Significant progress is being made in chemical sensors, RFID readers, and thermo-mechanical sensors. These sensors should soon become pervasive as well.

There have been significant advances in human-machine interfaces as well. Voice recognition, face recognition, gesture recognition, natural language processing, and touch screens are expected to change the way we interact with household appliances. Very soon we should have technology to recognize human emotions as well.

Data mining, data fusion, and search techniques are able to analyze and integrate vast amount of data from different sources and turn it into useful information for human use.

In my opinion, future advances in appliances will come not only from improvements in component technologies, but also from the integration of a diverse set of technologies to better understand the context and provide value-added services to users.

Advances in technologies will enable many new features in products. Obviously, not all of them will be useful to all of us. The “genius” refrigerator described above had many useful features with the exception of few annoying quirks. But this is a problem with every new technology. I cannot imagine living without a computer and the Internet, but I have done enough screaming at my computer due to its counter-intuitive interface and its ability to freeze whenever I have an important deadline.

I am really excited about the possibility of the completely interconnected world. But I am a bit concerned how this will impact my life. Will “genius” appliances control my life, or will they make my life easier? Perhaps a bit of both!

I hope that my friends working in the human-robot interaction area can figure out a better mode of human-refrigerator interaction, before I buy a “genius” refrigerator.

In summary, I am looking forward to plugging my refrigerator to the Internet. I am also ready to receive emails from it, as long as I get only one email per week. I am having tough time staying in touch with human friends on Facebook. So I certainly do not want my refrigerator to become my Facebook friend.

Are you ready to receive emails from your refrigerator?