Sunday, March 22, 2015

Actual home automation: building the helpful dumb house

Robots aren't anywhere close to being able to automate the annoying aspects of our lives.

I've gotten another Raspberry Pi, and the first one is working well with Oscar - other projects like TheThingSystem and Ninjablocks have falled by the wayside a little.

The only things I've got that I can feasibly automate include an automated cat feeder; or maybe an outdoor vertical garden.
Neither is really solving a proper life problem - not the same way that watering timers do.

After thinking about it for a while, the issue isn't making the full leap to automation. A modern flushing toilet is an incredible piece of automation - gone is the requirement to deal with waste daily, and when linked to a modern sewage system; the benefits to health, labour and much more are a very good trade-off.
All of this is reduced to a simple mechanical button and a charge from your council.

Building collaborative agents that can reason about the best rules to apply in the best situations is a very hard problem. Simple triggers like "motion detected in room X" firing "switch on light" need contexts and bounds: there's no point switching on a light if it is daylight; or put better; the ambient light provides a suitable visibility.
Dealing with multiple actors at once and building models of their "comfort" is way, way beyond what we can do - the sensors we have and means to deal with their input are far far to limited.

Maybe this isn't such a bad thing. Many people have recently ridiculed light switch apps on phones - a simple mechanical trigger coupled with a human solves the room lighting problem in a residential house really well.

So by that token, what can we do with more limited sensors, automated schedules and basic rules that can be reduced to a user hitting a button; or not?
I think the answer goes back to Oscar and TODO list systems like Trello - higher level decision making is almost always going to require a person; and the decision making should be for difficult or relevant tasks.
Trello and others solve the communication amongst a group of humans problem really well - it ends up being a really rough service bus.

What can we do to take advantage of that?

Observation 1: The federal government is really stuffing up the South Australian economy, with doubt around renewable energy projects, car manufacturing support ending, defence projects being on-again, off-again.

Observation 2: A lot of skilled labour is looking for new opportunities, through things like Airtasker or Gumtree. Many of these folks aren't 100% tech saavy, but are tech saavy enough. They aren't going to earn a living, but they are going to be able to take small opportunities. Provided that doesn't inflict an opportunity cost on them (being unable to find full time work because they are too busy chasing small scale work).

Observation 3: Service provider hubs are cropping up like wildflowers. The next evolutionary steps for a lot of them are going to be APIs - be it internal APIs for mobile apps or public APIs. Uber has forced all of the taxi companies in South Australia to compete with apps - they aren't pretty, but they are an evolutionary step.
In the Philippines, the taxi based culture is very prevalent - aggregators have sprung up with a few major 'platforms' allocating work across companies.

Google Now is the best implementation so far of 'Helpful Agent' that I've seen, recognizing when there is travel happening and prompting with directions, food, etc.

We can surely take the google now approach to sensing when something is happening; and prompting a user for decisions. The candidates should be recurring.

To that end I think my next project is going to be "Raspberry Pi that polls users for feedback constantly".
The idea for anyone who has flown through Singapore's Changi airport is pretty familiar - How would you rate the cleanliness of this room? Poor, OK, Great? on a touch screen.
Combine that with an agent that offers to post a job to Airtasker for a one-off clean, and you are really onto something.
Apps like exist, as do a lot of fitness apps (Google health, Up, etc); even for your dog (Whistle; which I have found to be very effective) - people have done a lot of data collection in the past.
Automating that and focusing on the problem areas in your home is going to create a much smarter sensor. You don't need to build an entire AI to understand a model of the real world if you optimize the questions correctly.

This will not get us smart houses, but potentially helpful dumb houses. I think that's a pretty worthy goal.


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