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?

(Continued from Page 1)

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.


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.


Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.