Smart is no longer just reserved for your phone

Smart homes, smart tech

So far in 2014 the spotlight has been shining brightly on home automation. From smart homes to smart fridges, the potential to automate just about anything is becoming a reality. Will automation become a part of daily life or is it still only a futuristic dream?

Smart appliance manufacturers use wireless networking technologies (some are experimenting with RFID or radio frequency identification technology) and special languages (the first one was X10) to help devices share very specific information over these networks. Any device that works with electricity can be connected to this wireless network. Commands are usually given via voice, remote control, tablet or smartphone.

The difference between using, for example, WiFi and these smart wireless networks is that one can more tightly control which appliances talk to each other and under what circumstances. However, the issue manufacturers now have is that none of them can agree on a standard language for all smart automation devices to speak to each other with and thus systems cannot become interchangeable. There are companies, like LG for example, that have opened their systems to third-party app connections.

One of the stranger automated products to be announced this year at the annual CES is Sense Mother. As is the case with a real mother, this device knows everything. Basically, Sense Mother will automate and monitor your entire life. Described in this way it may seem creepy but how is it used? Sense Mother has little “babies” called motion cookies. You attach these motion cookies to whatever you want to monitor (whether it be an object or a person) and assign a task to it. It can monitor things like whether you are drinking enough water, whether the temperature in a specific room is optimal, whether your kids are brushing their teeth properly or remind you to take your medication. It can also help you keep track of items like keys or monitor your house in case of a break-in.

Admittedly, at first glance, there are some things about automation that are concerning. By using devices such as these are we not simply making ourselves lazy? If we need to be constantly reminded to do certain things, what motivation to we have to do anything with the brain capacity we already possess? Also, does this type of monitoring pose any privacy risks?

On the other hand, it frees up a lot of time to do the things that are more important like spending time with family without worrying about the small niggles of life. Also, monitoring one’s intake of water or taking life-saving medication is beneficial to one’s health, so can it really be that bad?

There are already hundreds of companies offering to change your “ordinary” house into a smart home. Samsung has released their Smart Home app this year, a central control system for all your social appliances. Samsung has been in the automation game for a while now. They have developed smart fridges, smart washing machines and even a smart window with a transparent interface that can control air and light flow, and give you an overview of the weather. With their latest Smart Home app, however, you will need all kinds of internet-ready appliances from a smart TV, a mounted camera, a washing machine, an air conditioner and so forth (all with the Samsung brand attached, of course).

Songdo International Business District in South Korea (a country that has become a hub for new and exciting technologies) is one of the first real smart cities to be developed. It is a metropolis of smart homes and businesses where every building is wired, connected and has a constant stream of data. Even the schools in this city are connected to sister schools in other countries via video to take classes and learn together. It is also one of the greenest, most sustainable cities currently in the world (residents are encouraged to ride bikes instead of cars through the development of more bike paths than streets). It is a great example of how smart, automated cities and technologies can make a positive impact on the environment as well as create greater efficiency in urban areas. There are currently hundreds of smart cities in development worldwide and even South Africa is aiming to make cities smarter.

Smart cities allow anyone in it to take control of technology instead of it controlling them. Most smart cities are focused on the ability to control the environment (lighting, air flow, etc.) as well as the monitoring of energy usage. Telepresence is the latest buzzword to come from these new developments. Technologies are used to make people feel as if they are somewhere else (in the presence of someone else), reducing the need to travel to work. Smart cities also reduce the anxiety that comes from having to be somewhere and not know where to be or thinking something is not right at home when you’re not there.

When looking at the large amount of smart technologies being introduced this year along with those already on the market, one can see that the technology is already there for adoption and use. The problem comes in when needing to convince people that it is indeed a necessity in their lives and have them start adopting these technologies. Some might argue that it is too expensive to acquire and to maintain. Especially when looking at areas worldwide that are underprivileged and poor. Where do they fit into the smart city picture?

The world is becoming more and more overpopulated by the day with more than 9 billion people expected to live on this planet by 2050. More people will have to move into urban areas in the years to come and the development of smart cities will provide a better standard of living, a more sustainable future for our planet and even connect people more closely to each other through the use of technology.

The benefits of smart cities and automation are endless. Cities can be monitored as whole living systems where buildings’ collective “health” is watched (air quality and so forth) and sustainability issues are more easily noticed. Power consumption of whole cities can be monitored and adjusted to suit residents. This action also helps to create transparency. Sensors in and around physical infrastructures can send real-time updates to the connected community about when flu shots are available, when exactly busses arrive or how high the humidity in a certain area is.

Even though smart cities are apparently already so prevalent around the world, there is still a way to go before people realize the true value of these. Despite this slow adoption rate, it seems to be where we are moving towards in the near future and we will soon start to reap the rewards of turning our living and working areas into smart communities.