So-called “futurists” are often maligned, but for Ben Hammersley, deciding to become one meant becoming an alpha tester of what family life might be like in an artificially intelligent connected home.
A year in and it is already painfully clear how unprepared many people are to live in close quarters with this type of technology and to accept it as part of their home and family life.
And then there’s a question of whether we should even accept it at all.
“As a society, we don’t yet understand how to critique this technology,” Hammersley told CBA’s Wired for Wonder conference.
“That’s the real challenge of innovation in 2016.”
Hammersley began his social experiment a year ago by fitting internet-connected lights throughout his house.
You’ve probably seen some of the gimmick value of these systems – being able to fade lights up and down using your smartphone, or match inside lighting to outside hues – and Hammersley has found others.
“Last year when I had this thing installed for the first time, I was on a flight from Stockholm to Berlin on Air Norway, and they have wi-fi on the flight,” he recalls.
“I’d never been on a flight with wi-fi before, and it was very cool.
“I had my iPad and I was iMessaging with my wife, and I was also playing with lots of other things on my iPad.
“And I got a message back from her saying, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Nothing. Why?’ ‘I don’t know what you’re doing with the lights but [expletive] stop it. It’s like a disco in here’.”
But Hammersley has also discovered a way to use the lighting system to subtly influence his mind state.
He spent “hours” setting up triggers for various lights in his house, “so if you’ve got an email from someone important, a specific table lamp will flash red, and if it’s going to rain the next day, the light next to the umbrella goes green.”
The result, he sees, is he’s developed a kind of “ambient awareness” of things happening in his life simply by being in the house at night.
“I know when it’s going to rain, or how full my inbox is, or how urgent a particular work situation is, simply by the colour of lights around my house,” he said.
“And after a very short period of time I stopped consciously looking at them but I was just ambiently aware. I would just walk into the kitchen and the light would be green and I’d be like, ‘Ok, email or whatever. Coffee first’. But it would be an ambient awareness.
“And so I’ve become – in some way through those systems – part of the internet. I’m becoming cyborg simply by the lighting in my house.”
Unperturbed, Hammersley added a robot vacuum to the mix and immediately things got weird.
“It sits like a little tea tray on wheels and it goes around the house and cleans the floor and then it goes back to its little home, but it can’t yet plug itself back in again, so it sort of beeps at you plaintively,” Hammersley said.
“Now, after a couple of days of this I’ve started to talk to the robot, because its beeping noise is quite sad.
“Then, about a week ago I was walking into my bedroom and I opened the door and the floor cleaning robot was just inside the door, just turning away, and I went, ‘Oh, sorry’ and shut the door and walked out again.
“It’s like the most British thing you can do, right? I apologised to the robot. But it’s starting to take on a personality, and I’m genuinely worried about the day that it breaks, because one day I’m going to have to bury him.”
Digital assistants for the family
Where Hammersley has found the most potential for family friction is by using AI technologies like Amazon Echo – a powerful voice command device “about the size of a Pringles can”.
“Once you get over the creepy thing of a device from Amazon sitting in the corner of the room listening in to you at all times, [it’s] kind of awesome … and has very useful use cases,” he said.
Within days, talking to Echo’s AI personality ‘Alexa’ became part of Hammersley’s family life.
“I have an infant daughter and I get up every morning, get her out of her cot, carry her into the kitchen, get her milk ready, make a cup of tea for my wife, walk back, and distribute liquids to everybody who wants them,” he said.
“The point of the Echo is that when I’m in the kitchen with a baby in one hand and a cup of tea in the other and I want to turn the lights off and turn the radio on, and I tell Alexa to do it, it happened.
“And then I checked my calendar by asking Alexa what I had on it today, and I remembered I’d run out of cornflakes so I asked Alexa to add cornflakes and more milk to the shopping list, all by talking to the Echo.
“I realised that at that point, that was when the future had happened, that I had an artificial intelligence in my house.”
Yet Hammersley wound back his use of the technology. Why? Because of the potentially negative influence it might have on his young daughter.
“Over the next few years you’ll find yourself having conversations with sultry-voiced computer AIs because they’re being built into pretty much everything,” he said.
“One of the things you start to notice, however, is that the personality of that device really does matter.”
On this, the Echo is behind other more established personalities like Apple’s Siri.
“We had an argument in our house about the Amazon Echo because when you’re holding your daughter and speaking to the strange box in the corner, you’re having a conversation with the wall as far as she’s concerned,” Hammersley said.
Echo also lacks manners compared to Siri – another reason to wind back its use.
“When you say thank you to Siri, Siri says something like, ‘No, it is I who must thank you’, but when you say thank you to the Amazon Echo, it doesn’t reply,” Hammersley said.
“So I’ve realised I can’t use the Echo in front of my daughter in the same way as I can’t be rude to anyone in front of her, because what am I teaching my child as I converse with the robot that’s forcing me to be rude to it?
“It feels weird to be having a conversation on how to talk to the AI that lives in our kitchen in a way that my child won’t learn bad manners from it, but it is a situation that is happening right now.
“And over the next few years you may get a cool bit of tech which will enable you to have those sorts of conversations and interactions with technology in a much wider context.”