Our Homes May Get Smarter, But Have We Thought It Through?

Aug 14, 2017
Originally published on August 14, 2017 6:15 pm

John Essey and family live in a modest, two-story home on a tree-lined street in the suburbs north of Pittsburgh. From the outside, it looks like any other house in the neighborhood. But this house has a brain.

"It knows we're home. Doors unlock, [it] kinda sets the mood for the rest of the house too, turns on lights, sets the thermostat accordingly," Essey says.

Essey is an engineer at Uber and an early adopter of the Internet of things. He can control his lights with his Amazon Echo or an array of touchpad sensors he has installed throughout the home. Sensors tell him when there's water in the basement or a leak under the sink.

While Essey's setup might sound a little like science fiction, it's a prototype of the future. Some critics are worried these devices won't be secure and that companies will use them to spy on us to make money.

Gierad Laput, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University, says as the Internet of things becomes more ingrained in our daily lives, there are a couple of ways people are turning ordinary homes into smart homes.

"One way is basically to buy all the appliances, smart oven, smart dishwasher, smart microwave, smart toaster, all these things," Laput says.

But that stuff is really expensive. Smart refrigerators can cost $3,000 or more. And Laput said those devices don't always talk to each other, especially if they're made by different manufacturers.

The other way is to get sensors, and put them on everything you want to monitor.

"But then those get really unwieldy and you've got all these things sticking around and they look ugly and socially obtrusive," Laput says.

So Laput and his team wanted to see if they could build just one sensor that could monitor a whole range of activity in a room. And they did. It doesn't look like much; just a little 2-inch-square circuit board that plugs into the wall. The board senses about a dozen different facets of its environment: vibrations, sounds, light color and so on. The sensor communicates wirelessly with a computer, which interprets everything it picks up.

Laput demonstrated how the sensor works by turning on a blender. Almost immediately, a text box saying "blender running" popped up on a computer screen along with a purple squiggly line representing the blender's vibration.

Laput turned on a light, and the screen said, "light on."

Laput says he imagines both domestic and commercial applications for such a sensor. It could tell you that you left your stove on or that you're almost out of paper towels in the bathroom at the restaurant you own.

But critics say there's a catch.

"Surveillance is now the business model of the Internet. Companies make money spying on you," says Bruce Schneier, an Internet security expert and the chief technology officer at IBM's cybersecurity arm. "When the app says I can detect when you're out of paper towels, they're not doing it for your best interest. They're doing it because they want to sell you paper towels."

Schneier pointed to Roomba, the little automated vacuum from iRobot. The company's CEO said last month that the device could soon start mapping your home, raising concerns that that data could be sold for a profit. The company swiftly clarified that it would collect and share data only if customers consented.

But on top of the issue of surveillance, Schneier says makers of Internet of things devices just aren't prioritizing security.

"We're building a world-size robot without even realizing it," he says.

That robot has eyes and ears that collect data, brains that process it and arms and legs that take action in the real world.

But arms and legs can kick and punch, and more eyes and ears — like Laput's sensor — could make those kicks and punches both more accurate and more devastating.

Copyright 2018 90.5 WESA. To see more, visit 90.5 WESA.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Passwords are one big gripe when it comes to technology. Another - all our electronic devices don't necessarily talk to one another. That's a big problem when it comes to the so-called Internet of things, or IOT. We can buy thermostats, doorbells, refrigerators and other stuff that can connect to the Internet, but not to each other. And they can be really expensive also. Liz Reid of member station WESA in Pittsburgh looks at how some researchers are tackling this problem.

LIZ REID, BYLINE: John Essey and his wife, Adrienne, along with their daughter, Aurelia...

AURELIA: Ari.

REID: ...And their labradoodle, Ozwold, live in a modest two-story home on a tree-lined street in the suburbs north of Pittsburgh. From the outside, it looks just like any other house in the neighborhood. But this house has a brain.

JOHN ESSEY: It knows we're home. Doors unlock. It kind of sets the mood for the rest of the house, too. It turns on lights, sets the thermostat accordingly.

REID: Essey is an engineer at Uber and an early adopter of the Internet of things. He can control his lights with his Amazon Echo or an array of touchpad sensors he's installed throughout the home. Sensors tell him when there's water in the basement or a leak under the sink. While Essey's setup might sound a little like science fiction, it's a prototype of the future. Gierad Laput, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University, says as the IOT becomes more ingrained in our daily lives, there are a couple of ways people are turning ordinary homes into smart homes.

GIERAD LAPUT: One way is to buy all the appliances - smart oven, smart dishwasher, smart microwave, smart toaster - all these different things.

REID: But that stuff is really expensive. Smart refrigerators can cost $3,000 or more. The other way is to get sensors and put them on everything you want to monitor.

LAPUT: But then those get, you know, unwieldy. And you've got all these things sticking around and they look ugly and socially obtrusive.

REID: So Laput and his team wanted to see if they could build just one sensor that could monitor a whole range of activity in a room. And they did. It doesn't look like much, just a little 2-inch square circuit board that plugs into the wall. The board senses about a dozen different facets of its environment - vibrations, sounds, light color and so on. The sensor communicates wirelessly with a computer which interprets everything it picks up.

LAPUT: So for example, this is a blender. If I turn this blender on...

(SOUNDBITE OF BLENDER WHIRRING)

LAPUT: ...You can look at the vibrations here. That's very pertinent to this blender. And then we can detect that your blender is running.

REID: A text box saying blender running pops up on a computer screen, along with a purple squiggly line representing the blender's vibration.

LAPUT: And I can turn this light on, and you'll notice that the illumination goes up and then the light color changes. That's how we can detect that the light is on.

REID: Laput imagines both domestic and commercial applications for such a sensor. It could tell you that you left your stove on or that you're almost out of paper towels in the bathroom at the restaurant you own. But critics say there's a catch.

BRUCE SCHNEIER: When the app says I can detect when you're out of paper towels, they're not doing it for your best interest. They're doing it because they want to sell you paper towels.

REID: That's Bruce Schneier, an Internet security expert and the chief technology officer at IBM's cybersecurity arm.

SCHNEIER: Surveillance is now the business model of the Internet. Companies make money spying on you.

REID: He points to Roomba, the little automated vacuum from iRobot. The company's CEO said last month that the device could soon start mapping your home, raising concerns that the data could be sold for a profit. The company swiftly clarified that it would only share data with customer consent. But on top of the issue of surveillance, Schneier says makers of IOT devices just aren't prioritizing security.

SCHNEIER: We're building a world-sized robot without even realizing it.

REID: That robot has eyes and ears that collect data, brains that process it, and arms and legs that take action in the real world. But arms than legs can kick and punch, and more eyes and ears like Laput's sensor could make those kicks and punches both more accurate and more devastating. For NPR News, I'm Liz Reid in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF VETIVER SONG, "STRANGER STILL - DANIEL T REMIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.