A Fridge With a Touch Screen! A Washer That Connects to the Internet!
Why are smart appliances so stupid?
Smart appliances get no love. Every year at the Consumer Electronics Show, the world’s gadget makers unveil a slate of refrigerators, ovens, and washer-dryers that they insist have been infused with superior intelligence. And every year, everyone scoffs. That’s because smart appliances’ smarts are usually pretty stupid and never worth the price. This year Samsung showed off a $4,000 fridge called the T9000. It’s got an LCD touch screen and a wireless connection to the Internet. That’s the sine qua non of intelligence according to gadget makers—slap a touch screen and Wi-Fi on a fridge and voilà, you’ve got yourself an icebox with an IQ to rival Einstein’s!
Why do you need a touch screen and Wi-Fi on your fridge? Is it better for your cucumbers? That’s where the whole argument breaks down. The T9000 will show you a clock, news headlines, and let you use apps like Evernote right on the door. Apparently you can add an item to your grocery list by tapping it into the fridge then have it available to you on your phone later on. Why wouldn’t you just type it into your phone in the first place? Or on one of the four iPads you’ve likely got lying around, considering that you’re rich and dumb enough to drop $4,000 on a ridiculous fridge? I haven’t got a clue.
And neither do any of the companies pushing smart devices. What’s the point of an Internet-connected washer and dryer? To check the status of your laundry from anywhere in the world, obviously! You’ll never again find yourself panicked about your whites while you’re partying with your bros. You can also “start a load of laundry while driving home from work,” an executive from LG boasted in a press release. That sounds great until you remember that LG’s machine can’t load itself. To do your laundry on the go, you had to have filled it with dirty clothes and added soap, just like with any cheapo machine, and then brazenly left the house without starting the washer. Smart!
LG didn’t announce the price of its new washer-dryers, but its old smart washers and dryers were priced at $1,600 each. That’s about $1,000 more than you’d spend on a run-of-the-mill model. If starting your laundry from your car is that important to you, knock yourself out, but understand that you’re basically throwing your money away.
Some critics argue that the self-evident stupidity of these smart gadgets shows that the entire pursuit of intelligence in our appliances is misguided. “Maybe I'm just a snob who just wants a fridge that keeps food cooled and makes good ice,” says Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz.
But I don’t quite agree that we should keep our appliances dumb and simple. The real problem with smart devices isn’t that they’re trying to be smart but that they’re not nearly smart enough. I would love to have a refrigerator that was legitimately intelligent, not one that put on airs because it got gussied up with a touch screen.
What’s a legitimately smart fridge? Well, how about one that automatically keeps track of everything I put in it so that I can check to see if I’ve got any Dijon mustard left while I’m at the store? Or maybe it could figure out that my four carrots, three ribs of celery, and last night’s chicken leftovers will add up to a great stock—and then flash a recipe on its screen when I go get a Coke. Or take my stove: What if it could determine when the sauce that’s been reducing on the back burner has just reached the proper consistency—and then shut off the burner all by itself?
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.