How voice assistants killed automation and saved the smart home – CNET



Tyler Lizenby / CNET

When the Nest learning thermostat hit the smart home market almost a decade ago, it seemed ready to change the way smart home technology was viewed: CNET's then-editor-in-chief decided to get the $ 250 thermostat within a week (!) To buy Try it. The sale? Nest would learn over time to adjust to your comfort and budget. It was the promise of automation – a house that really cares about itself (and you).

A few years later, another device called Amazon Echo came on the scene. At first, the smart speaker couldn't do much except accommodate the digital assistant Alexa. Even the developers weren't fully leveraging Alexa’s potential at the time of publication, the vice president of software for devices and services at Amazon recently told me. By 2020, voice control has almost become a requirement for smart home devices, and Alexa is integrated with over 100,000 devices.

These two approaches for the smart home area are inevitably contradictory: automation aims to reduce your daily tasks around the house, while language support changes the device for their execution and instantiates your active role in them. Alexa and Google Assistant are winning this fight for a reason: they offer a more inspiring vision for the future.

The promise (and the problems) in automation

In theory, I like automation: a house that does everything you expect but excludes many of the small touchpoints that take up your time. It sounds like a no-brainer. I hate running through rooms to turn off all the lights while my 2 and 3 year olds whine at the front door about wanting to leave the house. I hate going back to a cold home after shutting down the thermostat for a weekend out of town. I hate romping around in a dark house to provide my sons with their drinking cups in the middle of the night.

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Sensors can help automate smart lights. But does that make sense both from the inside and the outside?

Chris Monroe / CNET

While a handful of devices help alleviate these particular vulnerabilities – most directly the Nest smoke detector's motion-sensitive night light and thermostat learning features – real automation that goes beyond these problems seems to be a long way off. I've tested smart lights with motion detection and Bluetooth-enabled smart plugs, but home life is often too fluid for such devices. It is even more important that someone still has to do the automation.

When we buy our phones and laptops, we expect that they are already programmed for us. However, if we want an automated home, we have to do a lot of the "programming" ourselves. Nest & # 39; s thermostat has set itself apart from the crowd by learning how to use it, but the majority of automation in the market today requires you to take the time to set up your own routines: "If I open my garage, turn on the lights and open the blinds "or" turn off all the lights at 11pm and lock all the doors. "

These routines are really helpful, but it's tedious to set up and keep track of. In addition, there are always exceptions to the rule, and it's not fun to be locked out one night because you put the garbage on the street (yes, I was locked out by smart locks before, along with half of my office workers) , , And these annoyances don't even take into account the frustrating peculiarities that are typical of many of the platforms for setting such routines. (Works with Google Assistant, for example, and doesn't even let you delete routines.)

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Automation is cooler when you've integrated dozens of shadows and lights. However, maintaining this setup can also become a full-time job.

Tyler Lizenby / CNET

Basically, however, home automation faces a philosophical problem. Automation examines everything we have done in our homes in the past – opening blinds, switching lights, closing the door – and then asks how these things can be done effortlessly. Alexa and Google Assistant have been less concerned with what we're already doing than with what we're doing could be to do. It is a more future-oriented approach that is more popular with people who are chasing the future.

A new, vocal contingent

At a private happy hour at CES 2020, I had the opportunity to chat with Amazon developers while Guy Fieri was preparing to come out, tell a few groans, and cook with Alexa. There, the Vice President of Smart Home, Daniel Rausch, informed me that Alexa should become a home provider that does not require electricity or water. It is available in almost every room and optimized for convenience and accessibility.

It sounds like a lofty goal, but Amazon has been aggressively pursuing it. With the growing selection of speakers and displays, as well as the super affordable, modular devices like Echo Flex and Echo Input, Alexa could find its way into any room in your house in the near future. And if it controls your kitchen appliances, your washer and dryer, your TV, your music, and your alarm clock, it could actually be useful in each of these rooms too.

Google Nest appears to be taking a similar approach, particularly by investing in devices such as thermostats, security cameras, doorbells, and smoke alarms, all of which are now integrated into the Works with Google Assistant program and are slightly less focused on learning technology than voice-integrated aspects.

By giving priority to omnipresence for the moment, Amazon and Google drown out older, automation-focused devices. Paradoxically, they breathed new life into home automation as an idea.

Save the promise of automation

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Intelligent loudspeakers can do more every day – from specifying the time to monitoring your home for break-ins. What started as a gimmick is now positioned in the center of the smart home.

Tyler Lizenby / CNET

Alexa Guard was a simple software upgrade. When it met almost every Echo device in 2018, it also offered a decisive insight into the future of the voice assistant at home: the function listened to intrusions and simulated automatically connected lights in a occupied house and communicated with security systems such as ADT. It wasn't a feature that a large number of customers were begging for, in part because few of us had imagined it.

Automation has the potential to be banal (turning on the lights when you enter a room) or being visionary (trying to reduce the likelihood of break-ins and improve their results). The same imagination that gave birth to a voice assistant that felt like science fiction a decade ago is beginning to infect how companies think about automation.

The kitchen area offers many examples: A new generation of intelligent kitchen appliances, for example, automates several cooking steps – by comparing the contents of your refrigerator with online recipes and selecting those that you can cook, the oven being automatically preheated once you start preparing or even use cameras to see when your meat is fully cooked.

These newer examples of automation give me the hope that developers in all areas – not only in language support – will look to the future with increasing networking and networking of our houses and pay less attention to optimizing our lives than redefining it.