Hi-tech Google Home and Alexa not smart enough to be error-free

“Alexa, make tea. Now”. Wouldn’t it be great if we all had our own intelligent robot house assistants to deal with the boring chores of everyday life? “Okay, Google, dim the lights”. So-called “smart homes” offer varying degrees of automated assistance, and Google Home, launched this week in Australia, is multi-talented – it can speak with an Australian accent, translate phrases, do simple sums, get definitions, play music, and list news stories amongst other skills.

Alexa, the tea-maker, is Amazon’s voice-controlled personal helper and she sometimes features in the homes of the new age. Sadly, it seems Alexa, being American, has had some trouble with Australian accents and occasionally stumbles. If you ask her to make tea she might play you a Beatles song.

That could be amusing, but many of the smart home glitches surfacing now that the techno trend is accelerating are irritating at best, and dangerous at worst.

The Twitter-verse bubbles with indignant tweets about smart, and not-so-smart homes. “That moment when your virginmedia internet keeps dropping so all of your smart home devices just turn off”, tweeted Martyn Sarfas last week.

“Any way to tell Android’s WiFi location about mobile hotspots? I connect to mine and my house unlocks because Android thinks I’m at home”, tweeted Ron Amadeo, also last week.

Others have complained that because IFFT (the ‘If Then That’ automation service for little tasks between Internet-connected services) was down, they couldn’t turn their lights on, or the locks in their homes stopped functioning. One tweeter noted that a seconds-long power outage sent her smart home into a spasm and turned all the lights on in the middle of the night.

Sometimes, though, the smart home really is smart – to the resident’s detriment.

In the US state of New Mexico earlier this month, Google Home (the voice-activated speaker powered by the virtual Google Assistant) called 911 and a SWAT team promptly turned up to deal with the conflict.

According to the US ABC network, the 911 operator heard a confrontation during the Google Home call. A New Mexico man who had been threatening his girlfriend was taken into custody by the SWAT police. The man had asked his girlfriend: “did you call the police?” The smart home heard “call the police”, and obediently did just that.

Earlier this year, in California, the smart home glitch was far more innocent. According to San Diego’s XETV-TDT television network, a six-year-old girl asked Amazon’s Electra to buy her a US$170 ($233) dollhouse, and Alexa promptly complied. The story was picked up by the local network, and one of television journalists jovially declared, on air, “Alexa, buy me a dollhouse”. An unknown number of Alexas, whose home-owners were tuned into the network, promptly swung into action.

For his part, James Bryan, manager at the Sydney firm Home Technology Integration, hasn’t come across any smart home glitches, perhaps because his company uses sophisticated and expensive systems (including, if she is desired, Amazon’s Alexa) installed by experts. The human home-owner element, though, can bring its own hazards.

One couple who had their own smart home split up, and the man moved away. It was by no means an amicable split, though, and he then used the smart home’s systems to upset his former partner. “He turned lights on and off and set the alarm off, random things”, Bryan remembers. “You can do that from anywhere in the world as long as you have the log-in credentials and an internet connection on your phone”. After the aggrieved former partner complained, Home Technology Integration blocked the man’s devices.

The firm mostly uses Virtual Private Networks to connect their smart homes to the internet, which means there is little chance of them being hacked. Bryan points out that DIY smart home CCTV systems can be cheap and easy to hack into, and there would be nothing to let the owners know they were being spied on. “The cheap ones that come out of China, it’s pretty easy to do that,” he says.

Last year, James Clapper, then the US Director of National Intelligence, told a Senate panel that the growing array of internet-connected devices could prove a boon for spies.

“In the future, intelligence services might use (the internet of things, as it’s known) for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials”, he said. By that stage, Samsung had already been warning its customers not to discuss sensitive information in front of its voice-activated smart televisions.

The deputy director of Deakin University’s Software and Technology Innovation Laboratory, Professor Rajesh Vasa, says he and his team have been careful not to use systems that can be hacked in their trial smart homes in Geelong in Victoria.

“Ultimately, smart things can be fooled,” he says. “Technology, when you make it really complex, will have problems. But 90 per cent of it is the cost. It’s so low, they are competing so quickly, they don’t fix things”. He estimates it will take a decade or more before smart home technology is truly stable and, in the meantime, teething troubles are annoying lots of people.

The trial smart homes he has been working on have been inhabited by a number of over-65s for a few months so far. An automated voice greets them in the morning, and can remind them to take their medications. If they fall, the smart home will ask them to move to another room before sending out an emergency alert.

“We thought about everything we could and put it in there, and we’re building it more scientifically and testing it for months, and years, actually. We want to make sure that all the things we can think of are safe; we’ve already tried to hack into it ourselves”. He can’t guarantee, though, that the homes are completely failsafe. “They’re more robust. But there might be things I haven’t thought of. It’s a work in progress”.

Dr Yolande Strengers, who works on an Australian Research Council social science research project, ‘Automating the Smart Home’, at RMIT University in Melbourne, has spent time interviewing smart home owners in their smart homes.

The huge appetite for smart home devices – all the items that populate the increasingly crowded ‘internet of things’ – has led to a large and disparate market. Strengers points out that consumers can by a smart light from Bunnings or Harvey Norman, or can spend as much as many tens of thousands of dollars on a fully integrated smart home system. “Some work really well and some doesn’t,” she says. “And when you try and combine stuff together, which a lot of people do, it doesn’t work either. That’s where the confusion and horror stories come in”.

One couple, she remembers, had an automated skylight in the roof of their smart home, designed to open and close to take the best advantage of breezes and provide cross-ventilation in the roof space. One stormy day, the skylight decided it was a good time to open wide, resulting in a flood of rainwater in the couple’s kitchen. They thought it was quite funny, but many people would be furious.

“It never goes to plan, there are always glitches, like any technology”, Strengers says. “And with the smart home in particular, there’s still a lot of things getting ironed out”.