A Washer That Connects to the Internet and Other Amazingly Dumb “Smart” Appliances

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Jan. 11 2013 5:20 PM

A Fridge With a Touch Screen! A Washer That Connects to the Internet!

Why are smart appliances so stupid?

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See what I’m getting at? I want smarts that improve and automate the performance of my appliances, not just let me control them with my phone. But none of the smart appliances on the market today are smart enough to do this sort of thing. And it’s not really their fault. The real problem is the stuff in the rest of the world—the food, pots, and clothes that interact with our appliances—don’t have any sort of intelligence embedded in them. Smart appliances are stupid because the world is holding them back.

Take, for instance, my dream of a refrigerator capable of keeping track of its contents. That would only work if every food item that I put into my fridge were marked with an RFID tag that told my fridge what it was. Also, every shelf in the fridge would need to be able to register each item’s weight—this would let the fridge determine that my mustard jar contained only a few spoons of mustard, then text me urgently when I’m at the store. What about the leftovers? How would your fridge know the contents of your Tupperware and whether it was close to spoiling? Maybe Tupperware of the future could be embedded with the spoilage sensor technology that commercial food packagers are now developing.

Dacor smart oven.
A Dacor smart oven

Courtesy Dacor.

Let’s get to your stove and oven. Adding RFID and weight sensors to the burner plates on a stove would make it pretty smart. If all your saucepans were RFID tagged, your stove would know how much each pot weighed when empty. Then, with the weight sensor, it could determine the starting weight of your sauce. Now you tell the stove to cook slowly until the sauce reduces by half. (Obviously it has a natural language speech engine, so you just bark out your command, as you would to your sous chef.) By monitoring how the weight of the pot changes as the liquid evaporates, your stove could determine exactly when to turn off the burner.

The same idea would work for washing and drying your clothes. If your clothing were radio tagged, you wouldn’t need to set the cycle on your machine; it would know when to use hot water for whites and go easy on your delicates. Of course, the biggest headache of washing and drying your clothes is all the physical labor—the sorting, the folding, etc. The only real way to get around this is with robotics. If your washer came equipped with a smart arm that could load itself, and your dryer came with another arm that could fold all your clothes—well, that’d be something to crow about. Considering the many hours of folding time it would save your household, paying even a few thousand dollars more for that kind of intelligence might be worth it.

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But I’m getting away from myself. As you can see, truly smart appliances would require a kind of ubiquitous infrastructure of intelligence, which I’d bet is a long, long time away. It’s so far away that a lot of what I’m suggesting here might sound like science fiction. Maybe even magic. But that’s not a bad thing. Intelligence is a high bar; if we’re going to call something “smart,” let’s make sure it actually is.

And one last thing: Adding touch screens to home appliances is sure to ruin them. Touch screens work great on general-purpose devices like phones and tablets, but on a machine that does only a few things, tactile controls are better. Knobs and buttons work without you having to look at them. So until we get some actual smarts in these devices, you’d be wise to avoid any home appliance with a screen. It’s a clear sign of stupidity.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.