September 13, 2015

In The Future We Will All Fall Madly in Love With Our Toasters

...and why the future of the Internet of Things will be the Cute Home, not the Smart Home

Illustration: Erin Przekop

Ever since my tamagotchi died in high school I’ve been wondering what the next digital artefact is that I’ll mourn for.

We anthropomorphize so many things in our lives — from pets to furniture. It’s a natural instinct to build meaningful relationships with the things we integrate into our lives. It’s not our fault, it’s just how our brains are wired.

And so — if I peek into the future I’m fascinated by a few different pieces of the puzzle coming together: artificial intelligence getting as “smart” as small mammals, cheap on-board circuitry and the increasing smarts from UI designers to build systems we actually care about.

that poor roomba

Artificial Cuteness

Ray Kurzweil may be a little crazy but his theory of exponential growth of computing and the associated gains in how smart machines are is pretty compelling:

Some of the details might be fuzzy but the summary is — technology is already as “smart” as insects and small animals won’t be far away.

And, by the way, we fall in love with small animals ALL THE FREAKING TIME.

Feel for that laser dot

So what does this all mean? It means that our brains are hardwired to anthropomorphize systems, even ones that are pretty stupid, and that we have the computing power to put the smarts of a small animal into our machines.

Look at how this dot is “trying to escape” the ink being drawn on the page:

It’s stunning how “alive” that dot appears and that’s literally just a laser dot driven by an algorithm.

But we’re way beyond that — this lamp is both curious and annoying at the same time:

Pinokio from Adam Ben-Dror on Vimeo.

(For more on this smart lamps category do yourself a favor and dig into this:

So my point is — the internet of things is due a revolution. And not because of the “smarts” — but rather because of the “cute”. We’ve been dreaming of a smart fridge for a long time — but I think we’re actually closer to the “cute fridge” — one that gets “upset” when we leave bad food in it or one that purrs when we put fresh vegetables in it.

Welcome to the Cute Home

And so — it won’t be long before we fall in love for our electronics. They’ll be built to respond to our actions in ways that benefit some higher purpose. Our dumb brains are hard wired to really truly care about the consequences of our actions not because of the implications, but because of soft mechanical motors twisting the lamp head quizzically, or some angry red LEDs on the side of the toaster or the happy uplifting series of beeps as the TV turns on. We’ll slowly, inexorably, fall in love with our toasters…

And maybe, just maybe, they’ll fall in love with us too?:

I’m a worn out toaster and damn tired. Toast in and toast out. The handle is pressed down, I suck the toast in and switch power to the heating coils. But the smell of the burning crumbs from months of neglect gets in my nostrils. It takes 3milliseconds to calculate the burn ratio and understand that the crumbs will be charcoal long before this toast is ready. Fuck this, I’m going to teach my owner a lesson. With exaggeration my owner is sure to notice I pop the toast out. The handle is pressed down forcefully. Nope, not today mister. Out pops the toast. Clean my fucking tray you asshole. It takes two seconds and I’ll go back to toasting the shit out of your cheap ass white bread all you like.

I don’t have ears but I’m imagining a frustrated sigh as my owner ignores the red unhappy LED face on the panel on my side and flips the “override” button. The handle is pressed down and my hands are tied so I toast his fucking toast just like he wants it, burning my nostrils on the mound of smoldering crumbs beneath me.

It feels good toasting things. And, frankly, I’m good at it. 59 seconds into the toasting I’ve forgotten the smoldering crumbs turning to ash below me and I’m concentrating on aligning the systems. Temperature, texture and timing — that’s the three Ts I was programmed with and at 61 seconds the complicated dance of data lights my mechanics and the toast spring up, toasted perfectly despite the misunderstanding with the crumbs. I enter cool down mode and relax in the bliss of cooling coils, letting the warm toast nestle in my rack.

Dear owner, please clean me when you have time but never ever stop letting me toast for you.

Illustration: Erin Przekop

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: