“The house has woken up,” announces Mireille Hildebrandt when introducing a computer-controlled house inhabited by slumbering residents with personal digital assistants [1] .Houses with smart home technologies (SHT) have awakened debates on how to create technologies which allow users to live a good life.* In order to ensure smart home technologies are inclusive for people with different needs and living circumstances, smart home technology designers must consider many important facets of the way their technologies interact with human society. For example, designers must consider how to create technologies that are accessible, that respect their users' privacy, and, in general, be aware of how smart home technologies reconfigure social relationships and identities. While privacy, bias, and technology’s impact on human interaction are often viewed as problems in need of regulatory solutions, technology designers can go a long way in helping to address them. By addressing these issues and stakeholders in the process of designing the technologies, designers can enable smart home technologies to promote, rather than detract from, inclusion.

Concerns about preserving privacy in homes in relation to smart home device interaction with users have focused on the lack of regulation for these devices. While homeowners have become increasingly concerned about continuous collection and distribution of data to companies who create smart home devices, generally, older users appreciate this aspect of the devices and feel a sense of safety and confidence to live independently [2]. For instance, while younger users are disturbed with how various internet connected devices in their homes track the activities of inhabitants, elderly users appreciate how smart home technologies monitor their movements. In interviews, the elderly highlighted the sense of safety they feel with devices that alerted others when their movement activity was abnormal, such as the case with devices that detect falls [3]. These differences in values between generational users creates a challenge for setting policies that meet the needs of diverse users. 

Although ensuring a sense of independence for users presents a challenge fordesigners as definitions of autonomy vary between people in different contexts, it also introduces an opportunity to tailor smart home devices to a wider audience [3, 4]. Designers must therefore not only be transparent with users about the continuous data collection and dissemination of smart home technologies, but also create policies and practices that ensure users feel and genuinely have control over the data being collected about them. By  revising current SHT features or creating variations of devices intended for specific demographics, designers can demonstrate how consistent monitoring benefits certain communities and bring voices across generations to conversations about privacy. 

Designers must be aware of the intentional and unintentional impacts of their designs, as they reconfigure smart home technologies to meet the needs of users. As the appeal of integrating smart features into homes grows, companies that create traditional home appliances are attempting to produce products that follow this trend [3]. Thus, companies which previously did not implement data-oriented technologies in their products will need to consider: how to justify new design implementations; the type of knowledge different user groups possess in order to operate new products; and how variations of designs can become tools to classify user groups based on the status or value associated with the product. Additionally, designers and users will need to consider how the implementation of smart home devices in new settings alter power dynamics among humans and machines. Hildebrandt's imagining of smart home devices controlling humans and the challenges of adopting SHTs into living environments that differ from spaces SHTs have already been adopted into clearly illustrate the need for these considerations [1, 5]. Hildebrandt ultimately envisions the evolution of human and technology relationships, while Wong et al. foresee the issues in scaling SHT integration in new contexts. Essentially, both Hildebrandt and Wong’s examples illustrate acts of futuring—predicting or imagining of what the future may look like—and hence suggest designers have the ability to influence what the future of human and technological dynamics look like in new contexts. Therefore, designers must consider previously unaccounted for environments SHT mayenter in order to foresee the challenges and values that may become embedded in these spaces. Ultimately Hildebrandt and Wong’s acts of futuring offer designers the opportunity to determine how they allow SHT to construct human identities and thereby inform other individual or communal identities. 

Scholarly discourse has emphasized inclusivity as a critical area of improvement for SHT, however designers should not completely eliminate integrating differences into devices. For example, the perceptions of vocally communicative SHT provide designers the ability to support underrepresented groups. A study by Globalme (a language-localization firm) found Amazon Alexa, Amazon Echo, and Google Home had difficulty deciphering Chinese and Spanish accented English and provided less accurate responses for people with Southern or Midwest accents as opposed to Western or Eastern accents [6]. The study also noted how virtual assistants are often trained on predominantly white, educated, middle class, Western voices as this is the population who makeup the SHT market. In order to create smart technologies that are usable for people who reflect the user population, SHT designers must provide training sets containing voices of people from different backgrounds [6]. This problem allows designers to examine how they can utilize user opinions to create a sense of trust through the personalization of devices. Creating features that represent specific groups of people provides a chance to celebrate individual differences and invite minority groups into the SHT market. Of course, designers must be aware of the offense these features can cause, such as reinforcing racial stereotypes or misrepresenting groups, and must continue to foresee the unintentional consequences which may arise over time.

Overall, designers of SHT need to actively consider the long term legacies SHT will have on the identities of both devices and the people who use them. In the end, user input during the process of design and user reactions to SHT in their homes will hold designers accountable for ensuring the design direction of technologies ultimately leads to the inclusion of different types of users who can use smart home technologies to enhance their residential lives. 


Keywords: smart home technologies; privacy; bias

*Smart home technologies (SHT) are defined as residential internet-connected tools that allow homeowners (users) to control systems in homes (e.g. lighting, heating, etc.). Of course, the definition of what defines a “smart home” technology continues to evolve. In this vignette I discuss SHT in a broad sense, focusing my analysis on studies which particularly focused on smart kitchen appliances, virtual assistants, and devices for monitoring the elderly. I use the terms “smart home technologies” and “smart home devices” interchangeably. 

Works Cited 

[1] Hildebrandt, Mireille. Smart Technologies and the End(s) of Law: Novel Entanglements of Law and Technology. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2016. pp. 1; pp. 1-17. 

[2] "What Happens When You Fill A House With 'Smart' Technology." NPR. February 12, 2018. 

Accessed October 12, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/02/12/585177775/what-happens-when-you-fill-a-ho...(link is external) Mart-technology 

[3] Chen, Brian X. "To Invade Homes, Tech Is Trying to Get in Your Kitchen." The New York 

Times. March 25, 2018. Accessed October 09, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/25/technology/smart-homes-tech-kitchen.html(link is external)

[4] Pietrzak, Eva, Cristina Cotea, and Stephen Pullman. Does Smart Home Technology Prevent Falls in Community-dwelling Older Adults: A Literature Review. Report. Journal of Innovation in Health Informatics. BCS The Chartered Institute for IT. Accessed October 12, 2018. https://doaj.org/article/268389e1d4504b429ccfbaa08bd25225(link is external) 

[5] Wong, Johnny Kwok Wai, Jodith Leung, Martin Skitmore, and Laurie Buys. "Technical 

Requirements of Age-friendly Smart Home Technologies in High-rise Residential Buildings: A System Intelligence Analytical Approach." Automation in Construction 73 (2017): 12-19. doi:10.1016/j.autcon.2016.10.007. 

[6] Harwell, Drew. "The Accent Gap: How Amazon's and Google's Smart Speakers Leave Certain 

Voices behind." The Washington Post. July 19, 2018. Accessed October 07, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/business/alexa-does-not-und...(link is external) r-accent/?utm_term=.2d17111e4a9b. 

Lauren is an undergraduate student in the College of Letters and Sciences. Writing her  vignette on ethical smart home technology designs allowed her to explore the  intersection between design, urban planning, and data science. She believes smart  home technologies will continue to be relevant as debates regarding privacy and  technology along with the usage of technology to address aging population issues  continue to persist.