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Living like The Jetsons: The benefits (and risks) of smart home technology

In the 1960s futuristic, animated TV show The Jetsons, homemaker Jane Jetson and the family robot, Rosie, enjoy numerous push-button, Space Age-envisioned conveniences to run the household. In the first episode of season one, Jane serves up breakfast for her 6-year-old son, Elroy, by pressing buttons on a kiosk-like device, ordering cereal, milk, and eggs. Once the breakfast order is placed, the food surfaces from a hole in the kitchen table and Elroy dives right in. Meanwhile, Rosie the Robot activates elaborate contraptions and out-of-this-world devices for cleaning, doing laundry, and ironing.

Today, the Jetsons world of smart home technology seems closer to reality than 1960s science fiction. While Rosie the Robot isn’t a fixture in anybody’s home, Roomba robot vacuums by Bedford-based iRobot have become a popular household device for navigating clutter and keeping floors clean.

Wireless lighting is also on the rise, with technology like smart lighting control systems by Cambridge-based Lutron Electronics allowing occupants to control dimmers and window shades remotely from a smartphone or tablet, and create different moods—relaxing, bright, entertaining—throughout the house.

Like the Jetsons, today’s families are familiar with using voice interfaces and handheld devices/apps to control everything in their home from the security system to the entertainment system to heat and air conditioning, and more.

The boom is just getting started

Anyone who has recently visited their local consumer electronics retailers knows that the market for smart home technology is booming and moving well beyond voice-activated devices such as Amazon Echo or Google home devices. Indeed, a recent report estimated that the global smart home market will grow to $53 billion by 2022 (from $24 billion in 2016).

The proliferation and variety of smart home devices is giving people more control, cost savings (especially around energy consumption), remote access, and enhanced peace of mind. The technology is also changing the way new homes get designed, as architects and developers meet market demands by integrating smart home technology into new designs and residential developments.

We asked Sotirios Kotsopoulos, a researcher at the MIT Design Lab, which has completed multiple projects to integrate smart home technology into home design, about the impacts of smart home technology.

“The greatest economic impact will be in chore automation,” Kotsopoulos says, “which can cut an estimated 100 hours of labor per year for the typical household.” The next-largest impact, he notes, would come from energy management followed by security. As for the overall impact in dollars, Kotsopoulos, who holds a Ph.D. in Design and Computation from MIT, cites a report from global consultants McKinsey and Company that says the economic impact of smart home technology will grow to $200 to 350 billion per year in 2025.


Personalization: The future of smart home tech

Technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning are even enabling devices and smart home systems to personalize settings for occupants across scenarios without human input.

“The smart home is gradually developing into a form of an artificial intelligence service that operates in an autonomous manner, by self-understanding [learning] the behaviors of the residents and servicing them without the need for explicit input,” Kotsopoulos says.

Imagine coming home from work, entering your front door, and hearing the soothing strains of your favorite James Taylor tune — all because your “caring” home was tracking your patterns from a wearable fitbit-type device, sensed you’d had a rough week and needed a calming atmosphere, and pulled a song from your curated James Taylor playlist via your AI-enabled home entertainment system.

This sort of smart, personalized home platform could be the norm before we know it, combining various technologies such as computer vision, object and facial recognition, machine learning, algorithms, wearables/sensors, and (of course) robust system and data security.


Challenges and risks

No technology is without challenges and risks. Even in The Jetsons, Rosie occasionally broke down. Today’s smart home tech offers plenty of conveniences but also concern over data protection (i.e., can hackers hijack my robot?) and challenges with integration between devices. How these challenges are addressed will shape the present and future of the smart home technology industry.

A further obstacle to widespread adoption of smart home technology is ownership of control. People prefer the devices of a smart home to be under their own control rather than being fully autonomous,” Kotsopoulos says, “because they fear that AI may violate the sanctity of the home.” While the ability to hand over household chores to autonomous devices is an attractive idea in theory, consumers are hesitant to embrace such systems in practice because they feel their privacy and data might be at risk. To spotlight this concern, remember sentient computer Hal from the classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The threat of hackers is another big concern. Smart home tech vendors like Amazon, Google, and Nest are continuously working to close security vulnerabilities that hackers might exploit to steal personal data or gain control of smart home devices. “Given the amount and private nature of data captured by home management systems,” Kotsopoulos says, “devices need to be robust to prevent hackers from gaining access—physically or electronically—to people’s homes.”


Risk management

How can residents and smart technology vendors mitigate the risks associated with smart home technology? Part of the answer is having the right insurance. It should be a given that homeowners and renters maintain insurance coverage to protect their belongings, including smart devices, from potential loss from fire, theft, or other hazards.  

Businesses incorporating smart technology in their commercial properties, or producing or selling smart home devices also need proper insurance to protect against loss of inventory, as well as insurance for potential product liability (in case their smart devices cause loss). No matter how amazing technology becomes, there will always be risks of adoption for homeowners and businesses. Having the right insurance in place can mitigate those risks and reduce worries.

Whether your name is Jetson or not, it’s always a smart move to cover the evolving risks of smart home technology.

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.