The end of household chores? Be careful what you wish for

This article by Fiona J McEvoy ( was originally posted on All Turtles.

Facebook’s and Google’s new home-based devices are designed to improve the way we live and interact in our personal time. These tech giants, along with vast swathes of smaller AI firms, are looking to upgrade and streamline our domestic experiences including how we share, relax, connect, and shop.

The veritable avalanche of new gizmos vying for a place in our most private spaces constitutes a true home invasion, and while many have voiced concerns about privacy and the security of personal data, fewer have considered what this might mean for the human condition.

Home is where the device is

What will become of the human occupants of smart and increasingly autonomous homes? It’s hard to say, but tech companies and retailers are certainly keen to encourage us to abdicate many of the usual household tasks.

Take grocery shopping. That so many of us are choosing home delivery proves it isn’t a favorite task. So, it really isn’t too hard to imagine that soon our home devices will automatically order our weekly shop. According to a recent survey about so-called “programmatic commerce,” as many as 57-percent of U.K. consumers say that they will be ready automatic purchasing (meaning without any manual approval) within the next two years, with 13-percent saying that they’re ready now.

Prototypes of a fridge that can order food and drink have debuted at CES in Las Vegas and other trade shows. Surely it won’t be long until one does so autonomously, based on our previous orders. Especially given that studies have shown that we’re 93-percent predictable. (Are you listening, Amazon?)

And grocery shopping isn’t the only domestic labor that our tech masters are wresting from our grateful human grips over the past several years. Autonomous vacuum cleaners happily zoom around living rooms, beds maneuver themselves for our comfort, smart heating systems learn our preference for low temperatures at night and pre-empt our thermostat adjustments, and automatic window blinds sense and adjust to create the optimal light conditions.

We are already living in the future as imagined in the science fiction of yesteryear. But will these increasing levels of intelligent automation make us idle? Will tomorrow’s adults know the drudgery of a chore? Will we become human-shaped blobs existing to be served by autonomous devices?

Perhaps we should defer to the concerns of previous generations about dehumanizing technological advances. Decrying the advent of recorded music in 1906, composer John Philip Sousa railed:

“Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink?

When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabies, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?

Children are naturally imitative, and if, in their infancy, they hear only phonographs, will they not sing, if they sing at all, in imitation and finally become simply human phonograph – without soul or expression?”

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

So are our concerns as ill-founded as Sousa’s (which now seem profoundly absurd)? Should we summarily dismiss worries about machines and AI usurping us in tasks that have remained within the human purview for millennia? After all, we might reasonably assume that new tasks, now unimaginable, might arise to fill the vacuum left by mindless chores.

Or perhaps we should hold our scoffs and remember that statistic about the predictability of human behavior. At 93-percentage, it is high but not total. And yet many of these machines seek to lull us into highly repetitive patterns. Indeed, it is a condition of success for autonomous IoT devices that we remain stable in our choices. A deviation of 7% is problematic for smart, “intuitive” households.

Therefore, there is presumably – at least to a degree – a vested interest on behalf of those who wish to automate our homes, that we become creatures of definable habit, living in a sort Groundhog Day. And perhaps our concern should not be that we will become idle, but that our wish for convenience leads us to become boringly predictable and, perhaps in turn, malleable.

This is, of course, a consideration for product makers. It’s a less obvious ethical problem to add to an ever-growing list. Yet it presents a new sort of challenge: How to make systems that rely upon predictability but also preserve and nurture the true randomness of the human character? Put another way, how to build devices to bend to the will of our less uniform traits and the evolution of our tastes and personalities, rather than forcibly determining them?

If we are to embrace to autonomous home and a chore-free domestic life (we might hope!), it should be on the condition that it also embraces us, and allows the sorts of free choices that constitute who we are.

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