Elon/Pew: Are we headed for the Jetson home of the future?

Elon's latest Imagining the Internet survey looks at the tech-enhanced homes of 2020.

Media coverage of this report: Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, ARS Technica, CNET, Vator News, Financial Channel, ABC Radio News Network, CBS Radio News Network, Burlington Times-News, Geek Wire, IT BusinessEdge, Chicago Tribune

Despite some advances, by 2020 we still won’t be living in the Jetsons’ future

Experts think tech-enhanced homes, appliances and utilities will continue a gradual evolution

Will digitally connected homes be models of efficient resource management by 2020? More than 1,000 Internet experts, researchers, observers and critics were queried about the future use of “smart” networked devices in people’s homes. Survey results showed a fairly even split between those who said efficient energy- and money-saving “smart systems” will be closer to being a reality in people’s homes by 2020 and those who said such homes will mostly remain a marketing mirage. In answering the survey, experts shared varied points of view about what the near future will bring – a few examples:

“Homes will get more efficient because it will cost more and more to waste energy – the devices will become simpler because no one likes being outsmarted by their thermostat,” said David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

“Smart homes are on their way, but this development is being delayed – not so much by lack of trust as by lack of alignment of the key players—utilities, ISPs, manufacturers,” said Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Communications and Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

“In the next decade there will be huge demand for home medical alert systems, and the market will respond to that need – health will be a bigger driver than environmental issues,” said Hal Varian, chief economist at Google.

While 51% of the survey participants said the connected home could be a model of efficiency and the idealized “Home of the Future” will be somewhat closer to reality by 2020, 46% said we aren’t there yet and a majority of the most-detailed written responses to the question reflected that a number of the top experts believe there are quite a few difficult obstacles that are not likely to be overcome quickly.

“The barriers that were most cited were the high costs of retrofitting existing homes and infrastructures and the fact that leading industry players may not see enough profit in smart systems,” said Janna Anderson, director of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and a co-author of the study “Some said people will not want top-down monitoring of their resource consumption – that smart grids can be seen as an intrusion on privacy and a potential threat to individual freedom. Several said ‘dumb’ homes are easier to live in than ‘smart’ ones.”

The survey respondents also noted that getting all of the systems behind the networked smart home to work together is much more difficult than it seems.

“The experts pointed out the high level of complexity involved in smart systems,” said report co-author Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. “They said the large hurdles to overcome include getting the various players to agree to standardize communication across sectors of consumer products and making the right moves in regard to oversight of regulation and the provision of incentives to encourage positive change.”

This is the fifth report generated out of the results of a Web-based survey fielded in fall 2011. It gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public.

(Details can be found here: http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/expertsurveys/2012survey/future_smart_systems_Internet_IOT_2020.xhtml)

Following is a wide-ranging selection of respondents’ remarks:

“Making each device Web-ready will finally allow devices to be operated from a central hub in an affordable manner. The companies that realize this will create smart houses with small, affordable chips capable of being controlled by mobile apps or SMS.” – Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism

“It’ll be good in the sense that energy will be conserved, but at a huge privacy cost. And sooner or later the smart meters will start imposing rationing.” – Brian Harvey, lecturer, University of California-Berkeley

“The smart home, smart car, and smart phone will be one and the same for control fabric—the Internet…The Internet will make it not only feasible but easy and cheaper than not doing it. That is what will drive Americans to the smart home.” – William Schrader, founder of PSINet, now a consultant and speaker on the future impact of the Internet

“In nine years, smart systems will still be experimental and we’ll only see them existing in reality among a handful of elites. This will be aggravated by the socio-economic instability that began in 2008 and continues to plague Western communities…Not much will radically change in nine years. (I still want my jetpack, by the way; I was promised a jetpack 50 years ago.)” – danah boyd, senior researcher, Microsoft Research

“I await my jetpack. While I’m waiting, my home is much smarter, as are my car, my fridge, and my lawn care. The pace of growth in smart systems for enhancing performance continues apace.” – Paul Jones, clinical associate professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

“Bwahahahahah! Smart homes. Yeah. No. Nobody really wants a smart home. Also, proprietary technology and a lack of organized protocols and formats means that this is not going to take off for a very, very long time. My iPhone won’t want to talk to my GE smart toaster and my Bosch smart refrigerator won’t connect to my generic smart coffee maker. People don’t seem to want this stuff very much. They like for their homes to be dumb. How many people do you know who have bought one of those alarm-clock coffee pots, loved them for a month, and then stopped using the alarm-clock feature all together? Smart homes are like that on a grand scale.” – Tracy Rolling, product user experience evangelist for Nokia

“Smart systems are only as good as their user interface. If they aren’t easy to use and they don’t ‘just work,’ then they will not see widespread adoption beyond those who consider themselves geeks or are interested in the green aspect of using these systems. Your grandmother has to be able to understand these systems. If she can’t, they’ll fail.” – Wesley George, principal engineer for the Advanced Technology Group at Time Warner Cable

“The connected household will not become the model of efficiency, because many people will chose other goals. The technology won’t hold us back. We will hold ourselves back.” – Peter Mitchell, chief creative officer at Salter-Mitchell, a company that builds behavior-change programs

“I don’t want my fridge to shut down because Comcast decided to throttle my connection or because I went over my monthly allowance of data. Technology adoption and development over the next ten years will be determined by a lack of infrastructure investment and a lack of resolution on policy.” – Natascha Karlova, PhD candidate in information science at the University of Washington

“We have some impossibly intractable and well-funded boulders in our way. The utilities want to own all the data, the carriers want to own all the data, the car industry doesn’t really want to change (which would drive a lot of smartness), and we don’t see leadership in the form of real incentives for people to change their behavior.” – Susan Crawford, Harvard professor and former special assistant for science, technology, and innovation policy in the Obama White House

Following are statements selected from the hundreds of anonymous respondents’ comments:

“No one’s figured out how to do much usefully with home automation/monitoring. We will go a long way before some code acts like the butler of yore.”

“The biggest barrier will be profit motives. Private companies will make their systems non-compatible in order to retain market share. Just look at computer operating systems! We’d be much more efficient if they played nicely together, but they don’t. I have no reason to believe that appliances, utilities, and so forth will be any different.”

“What happens when all the devices in your smart home are superseded by the next generation OS or processing hardware? How many times can you afford a new suite of every mechanical device in the house?”

“The drive to decrease energy consumption and reverse climate change will spur the introduction of smart grids and smart systems. These likely will be mandated by governments just as safety and health regulations are imposed today—for our own good.”

“As we’ve seen through countless home-automation efforts of the past sixty years, standardization of communications across sectors of consumer products is nearly impossible. The idea that your refrigerator will notice that you haven’t been opening the garage door lately and will jointly decide with your doormat and your running shoes to order more protein from your CSA [local community supported agriculture cooperative] to accommodate your new walking-intensive lifestyle, is just a fantasy. At best, we may see some smart-grid applications that will allow utilities to peak-shave by modulating non-critical demand.”

“By 2020, the connected household has become a model of efficiency, as people are able to manage consumption of resources (electricity, water, food, even bandwidth) in ways that place less of a burden on the environment while saving households money. Thanks to what is known as smart systems, the Home of the Future that has often been foretold is coming closer and closer to becoming a reality. By 2020, most initiatives to embed IP-enabled devices in the home have failed due to difficulties in gaining consumer trust and because of the complexities in using new services. As a result, the home of 2020 looks about the same as the home of 2011 in terms of resource consumption and management. Once again, the Home of the Future does not come to resemble the future projected in the recent past.”

“Our daily evolution will be jacked into our well-managed households, with work, education, supervision, health care, leisure happening there, virtually, or somewhere else, if we choose. Efficiencies will be had all around here.”

“Smart systems are already a major part of our lives (in our cars, for instance), whether we know it or not. It must become an integral part of automation in order to spur advancement.”

“I’ve worked in automated metering infrastructure for three years and understand these systems from circuit boards to consumers. Very few of the promised benefits have materialized after five years of deployment, especially with energy savings. The main cost savings were actually manpower reductions due to automated meter readings, and the consumer saw none of that passed on. In 2011, the smart grid vendor I work with has chronic problems and rarely performs as expected. We spend days correcting systems and utility bills. Quality control is not robust, and foreign outsourcing of circuit boards and software has driven costs very high due to chronic quality issues. Consumers have little real understanding of these systems and how system flaws and meter misconfigurations affect their bills. Our home energy project was not enthusiastically embraced, and real communication issues persist. Consumers receive only contingent information about the effects of added radiofrequency energy [electromagnetic radiation] in their homes. They also are resistant to intrusive monitoring and control of their home equipment, and added power consumption for the monitoring equipment to reduce consumption. Utility workers are basically honest and committed people, but the bottom line of the corporation will always be to increase consumption. Those with poor Internet resources—tribes, rural, poor—will be completely shut out. Those with smart-grid systems enabled in their homes will become even less aware of energy delivery systems in the economy.”


The findings reflect the reactions in an online, opt-in survey of a diverse set of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics who were asked to choose one of two provided scenarios and explain their choice. While 51 percent agreed with the statement that we’ll be closer to the Home of the Future by 2020, a significant number of the survey participants who selected that scenario said the true outcome will be a little bit of both scenarios, and many said while they chose the first scenario as a “vote” for what they hope will happen they actually expect the outcome will be closer to the second scenario. Most of the comments shared by survey participants were cogent arguments that the Home of the Future will continue to be mostly a marketing mirage. The written responses were mostly negative and did not mirror the nearly 50-50 outcome of the respondents’ scenario selection.

51% agreed with the statement:

“By 2020, the connected household has become a model of efficiency, as people are able to manage consumption of resources (electricity, water, food, even bandwidth) in ways that place less of a burden on the environment while saving households money. Thanks to what is known as Smart Systems the Home of the Future that has often been foretold is coming closer and closer to becoming a reality.”

46% agreed with the alternate statement, which posited:

“By 2020, most initiatives to embed IP-enabled devices in the home have failed due to difficulties in gaining consumer trust and because of the complexities in using new services. As a result, the home of 2020 looks about the same as the home of 2011 in terms of resource consumption and management. Once again, the Home of the Future does not come to resemble the future projected in the recent past.”

Note: The total not responding was 3%. The survey results are based on a non-random online sample of 1,021 Internet experts and other Internet users, recruited via email invitation, conference invitation, or link shared on Twitter, Google Plus or Facebook. Since the data are based on a non-random sample, a margin of error cannot be computed, and the results are not projectable to any population other than the people participating in this sample. The “predictive” scenarios used in this tension pair were created to elicit thoughtful responses to commonly found speculative futures thinking on this topic in 2011; this is not a formal forecast. Many respondents remarked that both scenarios will happen to a certain degree.

The Imagining the Internet Center (http://www.imaginingtheInternet.org) is an initiative of Elon University’s School of Communications. The center’s research holds a mirror to humanity’s use of communications technologies, informs policy development, exposes potential futures and provides a historic record. Imagining the Internet is directed by Janna Quitney Anderson, an associate professor of communications.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (http://wwwpewInternet.org) is a nonprofit, non-partisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It produces reports exploring the social impact of the Internet.