Maria Sciullo | January 22, 2017

How smart (or snoopy) do you want your home to be?

In our household, Alexa is somewhat of a slacker.

This is not her fault. If you let an artificial intelligence device just hang out with nothing to do for big chunks of time, eventually she’s going to get a reputation for laziness.

At least she doesn’t leave empty glasses all over the place.

No, Alexa spends most of her days silent, in the background, listening, because we don’t give her that much to do. Her skill sets are great — she can float music into the air, recite a recipe for pierogies, recite NPR flash news briefings, call an Uber, turn on the lights, even tell me a joke.

Given a lifetime of checking the weather by opening a door, it still doesn’t occur to us that Alexa is standing by. (She’s somewhat of a know-it-all, but give her credit: She speaks many languages in the internet of things. Sort of the Lamp Whisperer.)

Technically, “Alexa” is Amazon’s much-heralded hands-free voice assistant, formally known as Echo ($180). She is roughly the size and shape of a can of tennis balls and comes in two colors: black or white. Amazon also has the Dot ($50), a similar but cheaper device that looks like a hockey puck, and Tap ($130), an Alexa-enabled speaker. They require Wi-Fi to connect to the IoT.

Echo’s third-party integrations are called “skills,” and if nurtured, they grow every day. The joy of the internet of things is in learning how quickly machines can communicate with each other and, of course, their human masters.

But there are two big reasons we were reluctant to let her in the front door. First, any “smart” IoT appliance has the potential to be hacked.

“I’m in the industry, but in the back of my mind I always think, ‘This is SO cool,’ until something goes horribly wrong,” said Trevor Hawthorn, chief technology officer for Pittsburgh-based Wombat Security Technologies.

Hacking into IoT devices isn’t just a matter of stealing computer data. Malicious intruders could conceivably set heated appliances to dangerous levels or turn off your smart thermostat over a cold weekend, causing water pipes to burst.

Worse are reports such as Homeland Security’s recent warning that medical devices such as defibrillators and pacemakers manufactured by St. Jude Medical can be remotely hacked. Its Merlin@home transmitter helps monitor and adjust heart rates for patients who have the implants.

It was no surprise at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas when several security firms trotted out routers with built-in defenses. Alex Balan is chief security researcher for antivirus software company Bitdefender.

“Pretty soon, everything will be connected one way or another and managed by a smart phone app,” he told the BBC. “You won’t be able to avoid it.”

Amazon might be leading the market but there are other players pushing hard. Google’s Home device has a Google Assistant, and Microsoft has Cortana. Apple is expected to jump into the personal artificial intelligence race any time now, given its huge presence in the personal device world.

For some consumers, there is unease about having machines run your household. What does it mean when eventually humans hand over the controls of everyday life to an artificial intelligence? (Now, that’s a big-time pondering for another day. Ask Alexa, “When is the Singularity?” and she doesn’t even crack a joke about it.)

‘Embedded in the background’

Daragh Byrne is an assistant teaching professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Integrated Innovation Institute, which offers a master’s degree in integrated innovation for products and services. It’s an interdisciplinary approach combining design, engineering and business, and students are well-versed in what’s new in the consumer approach to IoT.

Ultimately, products that can talk to each other, and to humans who employ them, must be well designed. This might be fewer screens, not more, in the house.

“One of the things I talk to my students about often is, we’re already saturated with information. We have a lot of screens calling out to us throughout the day,” Mr. Byrne said.

“We are putting these things in the rooms of our home. We don’t want all of them to be extremely needy. We want them to excel gracefully, we want them to be glanceable, embedded in the background, integrated.

“It should be in your line of attention only when you need it.”

“Frictionless” was the word used by Ben Arnold, executive director and industry analyst for The NPD Group. A recent 24-month tech industry forecast from The NPD Group predicts the smart-home device category of products will grow 90 percent from 2016 to 2018.

“It has taken a while for this market to gain traction; we are so used to thinking of consumer technology as ‘What can I watch on this? What can I play on that?” Mr. Arnold said.

“The question is: How do I get from having a speaker on my kitchen counter to being able to adjust the temperature in my home ... even beyond being able to connect those dots, what is the benefit to me?” he added.

Consumers seem to be more comfortable with the technology. And the ease with which some voice-activated IoT devices operate recently became, literally, child’s play.

A Texas 6-year-old reportedly ordered Alexa to buy a dollhouse and four pounds of cookies. According to The Verge, when a TV newscast in San Diego mentioned the caper, the anchor said, “I love the little girl saying, ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse.’”

This triggered Echos and Dots within hearing range of some households watching the newscasts. An unspecified number of dollhouses were added to Amazon shopping carts, although none of the orders apparently were completed.

Amazon allows users to disable voice ordering or to add a code. After The Verge report, parents around the country were no doubt checking their Alexa smart phone apps for instructions.

‘Smart’ loT market to grow

The 2017 Consumer Electronics Show was awash in “smart” IoT products. There were car dashboard integration from Ford; an LG refrigerator with an Echo-smart screen that shows you what’s in stock and then allows you to add, via voice command, more eggs or pickles to your Amazon shopping list; and the introduction of a Withings smart hairbrush (which has “advanced sensors and L’Oreal’s patent-pending signal analysis algorithms to score the quality of hair and monitor the effects of different hair care routines,” according to a L’Oreal release).

Also on the market this year: the Willow breast pump, the Simplehuman trash can with voice control and, from Mattel, “Aristotle,” a combination baby monitor/​personal assistant that “learns” and “grows” with your child.

“You know there’s got to be a roomful of MBAs saying, ‘How do we put Android on all these refrigerators? And we’re going to get the milk people in here and do a partnership,” said Wombat’s Mr. Hawthorn, who jokes about such out-there innovation but obviously takes cyber security seriously.

Whereas just a few years ago, the Consumer Electronics Show and other trade events were jammed with new product designs, Mr. Byrne said there was a “huge uptick” in more incremental tweaks on existing products: “Maybe 40 or 50 smart lightbulbs, where just two years ago it was primarily just a few.”

Although difficult to predict, a number of industry reports predict there will be about 50 billion connected devices by 2020. Home goods will be part of it, of course, but the bigger part of the IoT will involve industry use.

Many IoT devices are hardly frivolous. A French company has an IndieGoGo project called Leka, which is a tiny round robot. This interactive, multisensory toy “talks” to children through subtle vibrations, music and colors and has a screen that displays facial expressions. It’s developed for children with special needs, especially those for whom social interactions are difficult.

Companion IoT devices already on the market include PARO. The robotic baby harp seal has a soothing effect when stroked and responds with snuggly movements and squeals. It’s used in hospitals and nursing homes.

Just as home computers were a status symbol of the better-off 30 years ago, the idea of adding a smart security camera or an artificial intelligence assistant to turn on the Christmas lights is more affordable to a wide demographic.

And those silly products such as smart toilets actually serve a purpose, Mr. Arnold said.

“In electronics, we kind of have some license to try things. Who would ever have thought a speaker on your countertop you can talk to would be anything more than a novelty? But now it has its own market and consumer electronics industry.”

Wombat's latest State of the Phish report can be found on the company’s website.