From smart phones to the smart home: are we ready for robots?

Carolyn Moynihan
June 25, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

The car has left the highway. We are close to our house. Using our mobile phone, we send a message; the porch and entrance lights come on and the heating starts up so that when we arrive the temperature is adequate, which the device itself has learned is the one we prefer. The house is filled with soft music - we are coming to our smart home.

This opening scenario from The Home in the Digital Age , a collection of papers from a 2020 online conference hosted by the London-based Home Renaissance Foundation , describes technology that is already enjoyed by a few affluent people and may well spread to the majority in developed countries in the decades ahead.

Even before we have stopped arguing about the effects of digital technology on a generation of workers, or of smart phones and computer games on teenagers' mental health, or the risks of expanding connectivity and Big Data to personal privacy and politics, a new wave of automation powered by artificial intelligence is on our doorstep.

Optimistic narratives promise robots that clean the house, eliminating arguments about who does the housework. Others that look after grandma are being trialled, to relieve us of guilt about lonely elders who don't want to leave their home. Perhaps the younger generation will be visiting their elders in self-driving cars. After all, they will have plenty of time for social activities in the "post work" world.

Meanwhile, the Covid pandemic has accelerated what Mei Lin Fung and Deborah Gale in their chapter, "Digital Home: The missing element for a people-centred digital future", describe as a "collision" between the vital social functions of the home and the on-demand work that digital technology enables. Before AI relieves us of work altogether, we will see a shift of work to the home that brings new challenges to its members, they say.

What are the opportunities and threats that digital evolution (or is AI a revolution?) brings to our homes? How can new technologies be harnessed not just to streamline communication, household tasks and leisure, but for the benefit of family dynamics and their relationship with society? These are the fundamental questions that the experts assembled by the London-based HRF address.

Their perspectives cover everything from architecture to ageing and healthcare; from children's rights to gender equality; and from the ethics of product design to users' rights to be consulted and fully informed.

As emeritus professor of economics Antonio Argandoña and co-editors say in the introduction: "[T]he home and its members must have a place of honour at the table where technology passes from idea to design, from design to product, from the product to the program or machine, and from these to people's lives."

All this begs the question: What is "the home"?

Obviously, it is more than a place where technology is constantly evolving. More than the collection of functions - restaurant, hotel, leisure space, place of study and work, hospital, movie theatre - that technology may enhance.

Above all, as various authors agree, it is human relationships that make the home, relationships based on the dignity of the persons and their shared purpose - the values, virtues and other human capital that the community of the home wants for its own members, and which will extend to others outside the home and eventually to the whole of society.

Technology will change the home, Argandoña suggests, only to the degree that the social order already established there allows it. By implication, the home united in its (good) purposes will be in the strongest position to use technology well.

The home versus 'total work'

Strangely enough, considering how basic home is to human beings, little attention has been paid to its nature and role in the debate among experts over the probable impact of AI.

In a key chapter written with Stephen Davies - Automation, Home and Work - economics professor Maria Sophia Aguirre suggests that this is because most social scientists view things from the perspective of classical liberalism: on the one hand is the individual, on the other society, with nothing much in between.

"Until no earlier than just before the First World War and probably not until the middle of the 20th century in the European and American case most people did not think of societies or polities as being composed of individuals. Instead, they saw the foundational unit as being the household, physically embodied in the home, which was not simply an address or a residence but rather a social unit with a set of social connections as well as a physical location.

"This was reflected in the way that taxation was organised, in the rules governing the franchise (in the British case it was male heads of households who had the vote, not male adults), and in public welfare policy."

Historically, this was not the case.

Over the past century, and especially over the past 50 years, that model has been ditched. The home has been progressively emptied of its vital functions and the individual, his self-fulfilment and productivity, has become the focus of social policy.

Economists have fostered a cult of paid employment where the goal is not just full employment (everyone who wants paid work can get it) but "total employment", in which every adult of sound mind and body is in paid work.

Total employment saves women the "opportunity cost" of interrupting their careers. But paid employment also has its opportunity costs - not just leisure time but, all-importantly, time for creating and sustaining the home and caring for dependent members. Trying to do both - work at a paid job and look after the home - produces stress which can reduce work performance and create other costs, notably paid childcare, which may fall on the public.

What sense does it make for mothers to pay other people to care for their children while the mothers go out to paid jobs? Or for governments to subsidise this market exchange? It only makes sense in a society that no longer understands the intrinsic role of the home or its value.

This is not the inevitable result of technological evolution (blame it on the industrial revolution) but of conscious decision and policies, Aguirre insists. And those decisions and policies can change again.

"This all means that we should take off the blinkers of the currently dominant way of thinking and bring the home back into our field of vision when we consider the impact of automation. Many of the policies pursued over the last few decades are now proving seriously counterproductive and unsustainable.

"Artificial intelligence and automation if applied within that framework are likely to destroy it and have devastating results in the process. Alternatively, we can put the home at the centre of our thinking as earlier generations did and see how the same technology can revive and strengthen the domestic."

There is a lot more to think on in this far-sighted book, and for those who value the home, it is not too soon to start.